It was a dubious proposition from the start, the idea that African-Americans could unite behind a single black candidate to better their odds in the mayor's race.
They gave it their best try. Soon after Mayor Daley announced on September 7th that he wouldn't run again, black aldermen, legislators, county officials, ministers, and business and community leaders formed a "Chicago Coalition for Mayor," and began interviewing candidates for their consensus pick.
The coalition initially chose two finalists— Cook County Board of Review commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. and former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun. But both apparently did poorly in the swimsuit contest, because the coalition quickly discarded them and settled on congressman Danny Davis.
After the coalition announced its pick, Moseley Braun came to her own consensus: the best African-American candidate for mayor was her. Another candidate who'd sought the coalition's blessing, pastor and state senator James Meeks, agreed with Moseley Braun that the coalition had erred but not with her bottom line; the best black candidate was obviously him.
Whites, meantime, weren't coalescing at all—at least not openly. There were no public meetings about the need for whites to choose a single white candidate. And the early list of notable white mayoral wannabes was long: Sheriff Tom Dart, congressman Mike Quigley, Assessor Jim Houlihan, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, former city inspector general David Hoffman, and aldermen Brendan Reilly, Bob Fioretti, Scott Waguespack, Tom Tunney, and Ed Burke all considered running.
But on October 1, Rahm Emanuel announced he was leaving his job as President Obama's chief of staff to run for mayor here—and the white mayoral wannabes ran in a different direction. Dart and Hoffman said they wanted to focus on their families. Quigley wanted to focus on being a good congressman. Gainer wanted to focus on being a good county commissioner. The aldermen wanted to focus on being good aldermen. Houlihan wanted to focus on retirement. Pappas, who'd said she was "really, really looking" at running, decided she really, really wasn't; she wanted to focus on being a good treasurer.
As the saying goes, nothing focuses the mind like Emanuel.
Now, it is true that what looks like fear is sometimes prudence. Emanuel had returned to Chicago with a campaign wallet fatter than a Bears lineman. And it was sure to grow fatter still, since political donors prefer the big shot to the long shot. It was also impossible for prospective candidates to forget about the special friend Emanuel had in Washington. Emanuel was the prohibitive favorite; if he won, he himself could become a special friend to the pols who'd stepped aside—and he could abbreviate the careers of those who didn't.
While the credentialed white candidates fled the hurricane bearing down from D.C., other formidable white candidates held their ground, including hypnotherapist Jay Stone, children's book author M. Tricia Lee, and tenant Rob Halpin. Neither Stone nor Lee submitted enough petition signatures, so both were removed from the ballot. This was a break for Emanuel, since they could have cost him the crucial alternative medicine and Maurice Sendak book club vote. Halpin withdrew, saying in a statement, "Should circumstances ever dictate the need for new leadership, I would remain open to the idea of running in the future"—a relief to Chicagoans of every race.
In all, seven white candidates filed for mayor. After Halpin's withdrawal and four removals, Emanuel and a city worker named Frederick White remain. White is likely to be bounced from the ballot for insufficient signatures. And then there will be one (assuming he passes his residency test). With much less ado, whites will have arrived at a "consensus" candidate.
Meantime, the three African-American candidates with the impressive political resumes haven't shown the fear, or prudence, of their white counterparts—perhaps because their voting base insulates them somewhat from Emanuel reprisals. Davis, Moseley Braun, and Meeks have made it clear they're in it to split it—er, win it. Recent U.S. senator Roland Burris, who has more credentials than you can fit on a large tombstone, also filed for the race, but dropped out on Friday. Four other African-Americans filed petitions, and at least two of them, community activists Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins and William "Dock" Walls III, will be on the ballot. Two respected Latino candidates, city clerk Miguel del Valle and former school board president Gery Chico, are also running. So the minority candidates will be overcrowded on the ballot, while Emanuel will have room to stretch his legs.
Some Chicagoans—white ones, mainly—wonder why blacks think they need a black mayor in this amiable post-racial era. Aren't Chicagoans of all races in the same boat? Well, thanks to Chicago's enduring segregation, the answer is, not really. Joblessness, crime, and wretched public schools may worry residents of Jefferson Park, Lincoln Park, Norwood Park, and Mount Greenwood, but they're daily ordeals for residents of Englewood, Woodlawn, North Lawndale, and West Garfield Park. The segregation that concentrates poverty to produce these disparities also allows whites to underestimate them.
It's not surprising that African-Americans would expect someone who attended a Chicago public high school (including Meeks, Moseley Braun, Van Pelt-Watkins, and Walls) to be more sympathetic to the problems of Chicago Public School students than someone who attended an elite suburban school—say, New Trier. It's not surprising that blacks would expect a person who grew up in Englewood (Meeks) or in Greater Grand Crossing (Moseley Braun) to be more in touch with the concerns of blacks than someone who spent his formative years in Wilmette. Or that someone who worked as a post office clerk (Davis) might empathize with blue-collar struggles more than a person who made $16 million in less than three years as an investment banker. Or that a minister who heads an African-American church (Meeks) would have a better sense of what blacks need than a former congressman from a district that was 3 percent black. It's not surprising that blacks prefer their odds of getting their share of jobs and contracts if the mayor is black. Right or wrong, those are rational ideas.
There were rumors last week that the three leading black candidates would finally come to their consensus, with two of them dropping out—or that at least one of them, Meeks, would withdraw, in the wake of his comments that only African-Americans should benefit from minority contractor set-aside programs. But Moseley Braun said firmly, "I'm in it to the end." Davis's campaign manager, Jason Perkey, told the Reader, "I can't even imagine a circumstance that would lead to the congressman dropping out." Meeks's campaign director, Bryan Zises, didn't respond to a request for comment.
Time will tell. When the presumed needs of a racial group collide with ego, though, it's usually not ego that gets flattened.
A problem with ego is its tendency to offer suspect advice. Every morning, Davis, Moseley Braun, and Meeks have been peering into their magic mirror and asking:
"Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who will be the best mayor of them all?"
To which their mirrors have fawningly replied:
"Why, you, Congressman/former Senator/Reverend, will be the best mayor of them all."
But if they keep believing it, on February 22 the answer will be snow white.