It is quite possible that Chicago will not have another African-American mayor. Not in the near future, anyway.
The ever-growing slate of candidates seeking to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the most diverse this city has ever seen in terms of ethnic makeup, gender and age. That’s a good thing when it comes to giving everybody a voice. But it’s a disaster when you need a coalition to win.
As it stands now, 16 people are in the race, and the list seems to keep growing by the day. Some of them are folks most Chicagoans had never heard of until recently. Eight of the contenders are African-American. A ninth African-American dropped out this week because he couldn’t get enough signatures.
Earlier this month, perpetual candidate Willie Wilson, the self-made millionaire who garnered 10 percent of the vote four years ago, explained it this way:
“Now you got about eight, 12, 15 black politicians jumping in the race now. They ain’t got no money,” Wilson said to a loud round of laughs at a City Club of Chicago luncheon. “They ain’t got no money, all right? They need to get out of the way. If I ain’t have no money, I’d be at home taking care of my family.”
No one could say it quite like Wilson, which is one of the reasons he isn’t going to win.
The kind of perfect storm that came together to elect the first African-American mayor in 1983 doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a well-thought-out plan and a multicultural chorus of united voices to form a movement that changes the face of politics.
In Chicago, Harold Washington was the first to show us what that kind of energy looks like. We saw it nine years later with the election of Carol Moseley Braun to the U.S. Senate and again in 2008 when Barack Obama first ran for president.
When an African-American candidate is on the verge of winning an important race, there is excitement in the air. It’s hard to explain, but there’s an overall feeling that this is our time and that we’re on the verge of something momentous.
During those elections, you could barely find a home on the West or South sides that didn’t have a sign in the yard with the candidate’s face on it. You couldn’t have a conversation that didn’t lead to talk about the first black mayor or the first black female senator or the first black president. There was a tingle in the pit of your stomach.
That kind of energy isn’t brewing in Chicago right now. In fact, 35 years after Washington’s election, it seems impossible that black people would rally around a single mayoral candidate.
That’s not to say no one is qualified for the job. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle certainly is. So are Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown, state Rep. La Shawn Ford and attorney Lori Lightfoot, if you’re looking only at experience.
None of these candidates, though, have the charisma of a Harold Washington. They can’t fire up a room with a simple phrase like, “You want Harold? You got ’em!” None of them make us feel like we’ve got this in the bag.
Unfortunately, personality has a lot to do with winning elections. But beyond that, there are other more complex issues.
Brown is currently under federal investigation for bribes-for-jobs allegations in the court clerk’s office.
Of course, Washington had been convicted of failing to file federal income tax returns for 19 years, though he had actually paid the taxes. He was initially reluctant to run, but supporters still saw him as the most viable candidate to gain the support of liberal and moderate whites.
Some say that Preckwinkle is the only African-American in the race who could garner that kind of support. While that might be true, she has also accumulated enough political baggage over nearly three decades that could turn away voters who are looking for fresh ideas and less allegiance to what’s left of the Democratic machine.
Preckwinkle also could face a tough challenge from Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, a 46-year-old Hispanic star of the Democratic Party. An expected vibrant campaign could make Mendoza’s ties to the Democratic establishment seem less stale.
The West Side Black Elected Officials group, which includes U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, threw its support behind Ford. But the attempt to find a consensus candidate hasn’t managed to gather much steam.
There’s a chance that Ford and Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce on the West Side, could even cancel each other out. Enyia’s campaign recently gained steam with an endorsement by Chance the Rapper. There is evidence that younger people, in particular, are listening to what she’s saying about bringing a new vision to Chicago. But she has been criticized for accepting $200,000 in donations from Kanye West, whose controversial relationship with Donald Trump is problematic for many African-Americans.
In the beginning, Lightfoot’s progressive campaign caught the eye of many Chicagoans who are fed up with police scandals. At one time, the former chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force appeared to be the best candidate to challenge Emanuel, who had been plagued with bad publicity from the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Her path to victory isn’t as clear now that Emanuel is no longer in the race.
On top of all of this, Chicago has lost more than 180,000 African-Americans since 2000, according to census data.
None of this bodes well for the African-American candidates already in the race. But who knows? Someone we least expect might be out there gathering last-minute signatures to jump in.
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November 15, 2018 at 05:09AM