Can a black mayor ever rise again in Chicago?

OPINION - It depends on whether there is a willingness to take a lesson from the playbook of Harold Washington, Chicago's first and only elected black mayor...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Chicago voters have cast their ballots for the next mayor of the Windy City, and the winner was not the leading black candidate, former Senator Carol Moseley Braun. Say hello to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The results of the Chicago mayoral race force us to ask the question: Can an African-American ever become mayor of Chicago again? The answer is, it depends. We need to take a look at where things went wrong with the 2011 campaign, and what needs to happen next time in order to bring about a different outcome.

There were a number of factors preventing a black candidate from winning in Chicago this election season. For one, there was the big elephant in the room by the name of Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s ex-chief of staff. Emanuel benefited from name recognition as a top advisor to a popular president who calls Chicago home.

Moreover, he enjoyed a substantial war chest of nearly $12 million in campaign cash, and outspent all of his other opponents. Without question, Emanuel had flaws, which his rivals pointed out to no avail. For example, candidates Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle raised concerns that Emanuel made a great deal of money in a short amount of time. Specifically, he earned $18.5 million as an investment banker in the few years after he left the Clinton administration — although he had no experience in the field—and then “jumped back into government.” Emanuel’s residency was placed into question, given that he was not living in Chicago for the two years he served in the White House. And although he was briefly thrown off the ballot by a state court for not meeting the city’s residency requirements, his candidacy and campaign did not skip a beat.

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Meanwhile, Braun claimed Emanuel did not help President Obama in the White House, and abandoned his boss when he needed him most in order to run for mayor. It was no secret that many die hard Democratic supporters did not like Obama’s chief of staff, who was perceived as a deal maker watered down universal health care, and held the base in contempt. Braun also accused Emanuel of hanging out with bankers, billionaires and movie moguls while Illinois Democrats suffered a political loss. Unfortunately for the former senator, she was unable to capitalize on the perceived weaknesses of her frontrunner opponent.

To her credit, Braun had a number of strengths, including her experience in local government and in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, the state legislature, the U.S. Senate and as ambassador to New Zealand. In addition, she garnered the support of the National Organization for Women and leading black intellectual Dr. Cornel West. However, her mayoral opponent Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins — a community activist whose mayoral candidacy received grassroots support among black Chicagoans — questioned Braun’s commitment to African-Americans. “Carol Moseley Braun hasn’t been around for 20 years,” said Watkins at a candidates forum. “She has a way of embellishing her own history and other people’s experiences,” Watkins added. “You were strung out on crack. I was starting a business on the South Side. I was hiring people,” Braun responded.

Braun’s response was an example of the misstatements, missteps and distractions that helped to derail her candidacy. Questions loomed about her finances and late payment of taxes. She compared Emanuel’s persona in a campaign ad to Hitler, which was viewed by her critics as insensitive, particularly considering that Emanuel is Jewish-American. In the end, her campaign imploded and she wound up drawing a measly 9 percent of the vote.
Most of all, Braun’s failure, and the failure of a black candidate to claim victory, speaks to a lack of unity in Chicago’s black community and beyond. When it became clear that Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. was unavailable for consideration due to his ties to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and reports of an extramarital affai, a crowded field of arguably weak contenders from the old-guard black leadership emerged — weak compared to Rahm Emanuel, that is. This included figures such as Braun, Rep. Danny Davis, Sen. Roland Burris and Rev. James Meeks, a polarizing state senator who made anti-gay comments and often allied himself with the GOP and the Christian Right.

Although Braun became the black consensus candidate, it was not until January that she assumed that role. And in any case, the title meant little for her. Watkins was still in the race to siphon off black votes, and it did not help that Emanuel won endorsements from leading African-American politicians such as Illinois Secretary of State James White. Meanwhile, Chico emerged as the Latino consensus candidate and runner up behind Emanuel in the polls, further diluting the power of the black vote and relegating Braun to minor league status.

Ironically, in 1995 Braun supported Mayor Richard M. Daley over the black candidate Joseph Gardner, while 100 black pastors rallied behind Daley’s re-election. And now, she is herself another casualty of the “crabs in a bucket” mentality that is frequently seen among black folks. Now that’s karma. Ego-driven politics, compounded by a failure to cultivate a new generation of leaders, kills the development of effective leadership in the African-American community.

But can Chicago’s black political establishment turn it around in subsequent elections? It depends on whether there is a willingness to take a lesson from the playbook of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first and only elected black mayor: Pick a strong consensus candidate and stick with him or her early in the game.

Also, given the realities of Chicago demographics, with the population fairly evenly split among whites, Latinos and blacks, coalition politics is a must. A black candidate must appeal to all segments of the population and still stay true to the black community.

In the coming years, perhaps blacks should look to a younger generation in the mold of State Senator Kwame Raoul, who took President Obama’s seat in Springfield, or first lady Michelle Obama, when she is available and if she is willing. A Harold Washington victory in 1983 was due to a progressive coalition built on white and Latino support, not to mention a campaign to register 100,000 new black voters. Whether black Chicago will learn from the lessons of history in four years is anyone’s guess. It is certain that they failed to do so in 2011.