Secretary of State Jesse White, the longest-serving statewide official in Illinois, has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the March 17 presidential primary.
White, one of the state’s most prominent African American politicians, said the decision came down to which candidate has the best chance to win in November.
“I’ve been asked by a number of candidates for their support," White said in an interview Saturday afternoon. “I decided I was going to go with Joe Biden, because I believe that he has what it takes to be able to beat Donald Trump and put this country back on a sound footing."
So far, Biden has positioned himself as the favorite of the state’s Democratic establishment, amassing 47 endorsements from Illinois elected officials, by far the most in the race. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has 22, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 16 and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg with seven.
Endorsements, however, do not vote. And some carry more weight than others.
In White, Biden has secured the backing of one of the state’s most well-known political names, his smiling portrait synonymous with a visit to the driver’s license office for the last 22 years — not to mention the famous tumbling troupe that bears his name. One of the 85-year-old’s favorite lines (one he repeated again Saturday) is, “I’ve received more votes than anyone in the history of Illinois.”
The six-term secretary of state has not received less than 60% of the vote since his first run for the position in 1998, and he has strong relationships with African American religious leaders throughout Illinois, particularly on Chicago’s South and West sides. Biden is engaged in a battle for those votes with Bloomberg, whose support among black voters has been on the rise in national polling as he’s spent more than $600 million of his personal fortune on his campaign, much of it on TV ads.
“I’m going to do all I can to travel around the state of Illinois, especially the black churches, and ask them to come out and vote for Joe like they’ve voted for me,” White said.
It’s a role he’s assumed many times before, including during the tough 2015 reelection campaign of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. White served as Emanuel’s campaign co-chair and frequently spoke from the pulpit as he introduced the mayor across the city.
While Biden has the largest share of establishment support in the state, there has been some fracturing among black elected officials between the vice president and Bloomberg.
The state’s two long-serving African American congressmen are split in the race, with West Side U.S. Rep. Danny Davis backing Biden and South Side U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush supporting Bloomberg. One family is even split, with Chicago Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin backing Biden and her husband, West Side Ald. Jason Ervin, supporting Bloomberg.
Other key black leaders have yet to endorse, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly. White said some black leaders have become enamored with Bloomberg’s vast fortune and heavy spending in the race.
“Sometimes when money is being waved around or being promised, sometimes people will lean more towards the green bill rather than the leadership," White said. “I’m not motivated by dollars, I’m concerned about individuals representing the people of this country in a manner in which all of us can be proud.”
While Bloomberg’s polling numbers nationally with African Americans have risen with his unprecedented ad spending, White said he believes black voters ultimately will support Biden, citing his tested leadership and role as former President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“When people really start comparing these two gentlemen, I think they will settle on Joe Biden, as the person with the experience who has been there, done that, know that,” White said. “And I think he has the heart, the will and the desire to not only take on the job, but take on the responsibility that goes with it.”
With White’s endorsement comes the backing of his political protege, Ald. Walter Burnett. Burnett recently said he was waiting for White to make a decision before he decided on an endorsement.
“I really was favoring Biden, but he seems like he’s slowing down,” Burnett said after a City Council meeting earlier this month. “In our position, we want to be with a winner. I hope he can win.”
By the time White decided to make his endorsement on Saturday, Biden was headed toward a strong victory in South Carolina, the first state on the nominating slate with a majority of black voters. Asked if Biden’s South Carolina performance played into his decision, White said it didn’t.
But like Burnett, he’s looking for a winner.
“I’ve never experienced a president conducting himself the way Donald Trump has, so it’s high time for us to get someone who is probably the best, the brightest, the sharpest knife in the drawer to move forward,” White said. “I think Biden is going to win big time in Illinois.”
Bill Ruthhart covers the 2020 presidential race with a focus on the Midwest. He spent the last six years covering Rahm Emanuel’s tenure as Chicago mayor. He joined the Tribune in 2010 after eight years at The Indianapolis Star. Ruthhart is a native of Rock Island, Ill., a graduate of Eastern Illinois University and lives on Chicago’s South Side.
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March 1, 2020 at 08:37AM