For an hour and a half yesterday at Trinity United Church of Christ on the far south side, five mayoral candidates civilly discussed the issues in the race, aiming most of their barbs at the opponent who hadn't shown, Rahm Emanuel. The candidates were seated at a table in front of the lectern, with the moderator of the forum, ABC-TV reporter Charles Thomas, off to one side. Members of the all-African-American audience had submitted questions on index cards, which Thomas put to the candidates. The crowd applauded denunciations of police brutality, and softly booed both Gery Chico and Patricia Watkins when they backed consideration of city workers being allowed to live outside Chicago.
Then the tone began to change. After Chico spoke of a need to reorganize city government to make it more efficient, Braun responded, “Gery, I don't mean to be rude here, but it just seems to me that you can't really take credit for everything that you did working for Mayor Daley and not take some of the blame.”
- Patricia Watkins
Watkins was next. In campaign appearances, Watkins, 53, a community activist who's never before run for office, has criticized her opponents—especially Emanuel and Carol Moseley Braun—for failing to understand the needs of the residents of Chicago's poor neighborhoods. “Carol Moseley Braun hasn't been around for 20 years,” Watkins told the Trinity United crowd. “We haven't seen her. We haven't heard from her . . . . I did not even know the woman lived in the city of Chicago, because I have not heard her voice out there on the street.” The audience started to murmur, but Watkins continued. “We do not need people who have been missing in action and lost somewhere for the last 20 years to wake up one day and decide that they want to be mayor of the city of Chicago. I'm sick and tired of people taking advantage of us.”
Some in the crowd cheered. Thomas asked for order. “Keep in mind, this is God's place,” he said, to laughter. “That's why the truth is so important,” Watkins said.
Another of the candidates, William “Dock” Walls, spoke briefly, and then Thomas gave rebuttal time to Braun. She rose to speak, and Watkins, two seats away, rose as well.
- Screen shot from the debate - left to right: Braun, Chico, del Valle, and Watkins
“Patricia, the reason you didn't know where I was for the last 20 years [is] because you were strung out on crack,” Braun began, facing Watkins. “You have admitted to that. You also were in a cult. You have admitted to that.” Over a chorus of boos and some applause, she continued: “So let me tell you something, what I was doing the last 20 years. I was starting a business [Ambassador Organics, a coffee, tea, and spice company] on the south side. I was hiring people. I started a business from scratch. I was not strung out on crack. I don't have a record. I have spent years of my life working and fighting for this community as the only black United States senator from 1992 to 1998, and the only ambassador. So I don't want to hear it from you, sweetie.”
With that, Braun sat back down. Watkins asked Thomas for a chance to respond, but Thomas said it wasn't her turn, and asked her to sit. Chico and another candidate, Miguel del Valle, who were sitting between Watkins and Braun, stared stoically ahead. Thomas tried to move on to the next question, offering Braun the chance to speak first. The audience erupted, and Watkins objected as well, claiming Braun had been allowed to speak three straight times. Thomas turned to the audience and asked in a disbelieving tone if he was being unfair. The answer was a strident yes; sympathies seemed to have shifted to Watkins. Thomas conceded and directed the question to del Valle. Calm returned, and the forum proceeded without incident.
As soon as the event ended, Braun left, without speaking to the several reporters in attendance. Watkins told me, “I just want it to be known that I am tired of seeing people missing in action, showing up from nowhere. She needs to get out of the race.”
In the 1990s, while Braun was in the Senate, Watkins founded the TARGET Area Development Organization, a group focused on criminal justice reform, public safety, education, and economic development on Chicago's south and west sides.
Watkins has acknowledged an addiction to cocaine three decades ago. When I spoke with her in December, she described how religion had helped her get clean.
In the hallway, another reporter asked her about Braun's charges. “Carol has a way of embellishing her own history, and she also has a way of embellishing other people's experiences,” Watkins said. “I've never used crack in my entire life. So for her to say that I was a crack addict for 20 years is very far removed from the truth, and is kind of delusional. I did say that I was hooked on drugs for three years, from [ages] 19 to 21, which was 32 years ago.”