Chicago election shows racial politics changing

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Associated Press

Posted on February 24, 2011 at 6:01 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 24 at 6:05 PM

CHICAGO (AP) — The plan was simple: The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Chicago's other black leaders would choose one black candidate to run for mayor, invoke the name of the city's respected first black mayor and watch its largest racial group flock to the polls to vote for the anointed candidate.

But as Tuesday's election showed, things aren't so simple in Chicago anymore. While much of the city remains as geographically segregated as it was in 1983, when black and Hispanic voters helped Harold Washington to a historic victory in the mayoral race, voters this week rejected the so-called "consensus" black candidate and two Hispanic candidates in favor of a white man — former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

The lessons from the election are still emerging, but voters, aldermen and residents say one thing is clear: Race might still play a role in Chicago politics, but people don't vote along racial and ethnic lines like they once did.

"It's pretty naive and frankly a little insulting that they think our intelligence is so low that they say the name 'Harold Washington' and people will vote for you," said Patricia Mosley, a 53-year-old black resident who voted for Emanuel, who is Jewish.

The former congressman collected two and often three times more votes than the consensus candidate, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, did in every predominantly black ward. He also had strong support in predominantly Hispanic wards, occasionally outpolling Chicago schools president Gery Chico, who's part Mexican, and City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who's Puerto Rican.

In all, Emanuel won 40 of 50 wards in Chicago, where blacks, whites and Hispanics each make up roughly a third of the population. He received 55 percent of the vote. Chico was second with 24 percent.

"I don't think we're post racial yet, but we're definitely past racial and ethnic-based voting," said Laura Washington, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist and TV political analyst.

Among the reasons? Demographic changes — the city has fewer blacks and whites and more Latinos — the massive Latino and immigrant political that started in 2006, and the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president.

Black and Hispanic coalitions began meeting last fall soon after Mayor Richard Daley announced he wouldn't seek a seventh term in the city he's ruled for more than 20 years.

Hispanic leaders ultimately decided not to endorse one candidate to avoid turning off voters who didn't want to be told what to do. They also wanted to avoid aggravating historic tensions between Mexicans against Puerto Ricans, said Alberto Bocanegra, a coalition member.

But the city's top black leaders, seeking someone who had broad appeal across ethnic and racial lines, threw their support behind 69-year-old U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, the son of sharecroppers who grew up in the segregated South. They expected other black candidates would drop out. Instead, Braun refused to quit, and Davis eventually threw his support behind her.

"I was not going to spend three months helping further divide a community that was already seriously divided," Davis said.

But Braun didn't help her cause or that of the black coalition. Many believe she ran a terrible campaign that alienated big chunks of voters, including blacks. When other candidates released their tax returns, she refused. When she relented, the documents showed her tea and coffee company was struggling, raising questions about her ability to run a city already in deep financial trouble, said Alan Gitelson, a Loyola University political scientist.

During a candidate forum in a church, Braun said one of her opponents, Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins — also a black woman — was "strung out on crack." That comment and others offended many in the black community, and Braun's poll numbers dropped.

Braun hasn't talked to reporters after conceding the race on Election Night and didn't respond to requests for comment.

But regardless of what she did, many black voters simply didn't buy the unity effort.

"I'm a mixed black woman, I date a Jewish guy, the colors don't matter to us," said Tahani Tompkins, 27, a charter school teacher who supported Emanuel. "We didn't look at his skin color. He's looped up with someone we respect like Obama. We're not concerned with him being white."

Alderman Freddrenna Lyle said older members of the black community who remember the race riots after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the election of Washington more than two decades later are dying. Young blacks know Washington only as a name in a history book or for the library named after him. Many of them, like Tompkins, find the idea that a black person would best serve the black community overly simplistic.

And in Emanuel, they saw a candidate with a proven political history, unmatched name recognition and ties to two men who have a special place among black voters all over the country: Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Emanuel has worked for both.

Alderman Walter Burnett, who chairs the City Council's Black Caucus, said Jackson and other leaders failed to recognize that many blacks don't believe voting in their self-interest always means voting for black candidates.

"People voted for who they thought the best for our community," said Burnett. "They thought Rahm could do more for their community."

Jackson didn't return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Kwame Raoul, a Chicago Democrat who holds Obama's old seat in the Illinois Senate, said Braun should have sought support from a wider swath of the black community, not just the older generation of black leaders.

"There's a reluctance to pass the baton," said the 46-year-old. "I've been playing the role of being a part of a new generation for so long that I think I'm slipping out of it."

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