The battle for Mayor in the windy and very chilly city of Chicago has been heating up in recent weeks as the campaign rhetoric is noticeably more racial in edge. Many political junkies watching the closely contested race were mainly focused on the residency eligibility dispute involving former White House Chief of Staff and former Chicago-area Congressman Rahm Emanuel. Another side to the brewing primary emerged, however, as the race’s crowded field of African American candidates became much more competitive and louder in recent weeks.
Many longtime observers of the Midwestern city’s political history are recounting the days of sharpened racial tensions between the city’s competing ethnic communities, with the sizeable Black demographic, which constitutes 35% of Chicago’s population, eager to make a play for greater political influence in the nation’s third largest city of nearly 3 million people.
Observers are particularly curious about the electoral prospects of Emanuel, who has been distracted by a challenge to his claims of residency in Chicago by a tenant living in a house he was renting during his tenure as Obama’s top lieutenant. But, there are currently three well-known, leading African American candidates in the Democratic primary for Mayor scheduled in February 2011: the very vocal, activist State Senator and Rev. James Meeks; the elder statesman Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL); and former Ambassador and U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (D-IL). This dynamic has some political analysts worried that Chicago’s massive and very active Black electorate could be split in so many different directions that a strong, well-funded candidate like Emanuel could easily win.
Of greater concern is that the candidates, and Chicago’s Black political community, appear unable and unwilling to agree on a consensus candidate. “There are groups meeting all over Chicago in an attempt to pick a consensus candidate,” said WVON President Melody Spann Cooper. “We look at this as an opportunity to showcase these candidates so that the voters can make an informed decision versus a candidate being hand-picked for them.”
But recent polls show an uphill battle of double-digit proportions for all three. Davis leads the pack with 9%. Meeks is at 7%, followed by Moseley-Braun at 6%.
Emanuel, however, leads all with a whopping 32% of the prospective vote, more than the 30% of voters that are still undecided.
Hence, in previous weeks, Meeks has stepped up attacks on Emanuel, recently charging that the White House chief of staff actively blocked African American leaders from meeting with President Barack Obama. Emanuel, according to Meeks during the recent WVON radio debate, kept prominent Black voices “… out of the White House. He’s never done anything for African-Americans.”
Meeks is also under fire for making comments during the debate that suggested only African American business should be designated as minority businesses to receive set-aside contracts, pointing to the fact that Black contractors received only 7% of Chicago’s $1 billion in procurements this year – compared to 8% last year. Currently, the city requires that 25% of all contracts be reserved for minority businesses and 5% for women.
“The word ‘minority’ from our standpoint should mean African American. I don’t think women, Asians and Hispanics should be able to use that title,” he said. “That’s why our numbers cannot improve — because we use women, Asians and Hispanics who are not people of color, who are not people who have been discriminated against.”
Meeks later revised those remarks on the local FOX-TV affiliate WFLD to say that “I don’t believe white women should be considered in that count ….You have white women in the category. They receive contracts. Then, white men receive contracts. Where does that leave everybody else?” Coming under constant public fire for the revised comments, Meeks issued a written statement in an effort to clarify the remarks, but charged that White-owned businesses were “front[ing]” themselves as minority businesses or using minority sub-contractors in a larger scheme that defrauded the minority set-aside program.
Many observers familiar with Chicago politics say Meeks is making an attempt to attract Black voters in Chicago, working a publicly aggressive strategy of confrontation with the city’s White political and business establishment to appear as the “authentically Black candidate” that the community can coalesce around. However, it remains to be seen whether this strategy will work given the primary’s multi-ethnic dimensions and the level of Meeks’ appeal with White voters.