Can Rahm Emanuel Win Black Voters Back?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a prayer service for mass park shooting, Sept. 20, 2013 (Scoot Olsen/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Why does Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appear to be furiously campaigning for re-election in the African-American community when the election isn't until 2015?

On Tuesday he was spotted cruising the aisles of a Wal-Mart on Chicago's South Side, which is predominantly African American. Over the weekend, he and police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy rode along with police officers in two of the city's most violent districts on the South Side in the aftermath of the shooting of 13 people at a park, which grabbed national headlines.


Before that, he announced plans to open a Whole Foods store in Englewood, one of the city's deadliest neighborhoods, which is also known for its lack of resources. In addition, he apologized for the torture of black suspects by Jon Burge, an infamous former police commander.

Emanuel also recently announced the renaming of an avenue in honor of Bishop Arthur M. Brazier, a popular African-American pastor and community leader who led the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn for almost 50 years.

While African Americans overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama's former White House chief of staff during his first election, a Chicago Tribune poll in May found that midway through Emanuel's term, nearly half of black voters disapproved of his job performance, an increase from about 30 percent a year earlier.

Some critics, like Stephanie Gadlin of the Chicago Teachers Union, say that Emanuel lost a lot of support after a record 50 school closings in June. The city said it could no longer afford to keep the schools open because they were low-performing and underutilized.


Many of the schools were located in predominantly African-American communities and bore the names of black icons like Benjamin Banneker, the self-educated astronomer; gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; and Daniel Hale Williams, the general surgeon.

"We don't have many institutions, but we take great pride in our schools," Gadlin, communications director at the teachers union, told The Root. "Now here comes Mr. Mayor shutting them down, and people are angry. The good news is that he has a black page in his 2015 campaign manual."


What does that mean? According to Gadlin and several others, including Illinois state Rep. Monique D. Davis (D-Chicago), he has to do more than spend more time in the black community. He has to reinvest in the community.

"I would say the mayor has an image problem in the black community when he's building new schools on the North Side, which is predominantly white, and just patting the head of a black child on the South Side, which is predominantly black," Davis told The Root. "I would suggest that he acquire a black person on his team who is not a yes person. He closed a lot of schools, and there is a lot of black support for public education. But blacks in Chicago seem to be getting the short end of the stick when it comes to education."


Diane Latiker, executive director of Kids Off the Block, a nonprofit community organization, told The Root that a lack of educational resources and violence go hand in hand. Her youth organization is based in the South Side's Roseland neighborhood, another of the city's deadliest communities.

"Our communities need reinvestment, and that does not mean closing schools," she said. "Everything is being taken out of here. There is no housing. There are no schools, but there are vacant lots and abandoned buildings. I don't think Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets it.


"I have no doubt that he believes what he's doing is right, but you can't have two Chicagos," she continued. "You have to invest in all parts of the city and not just leave the other part to die. The South Side is dying. Between now and 2015, he's going to need to do more than walk the aisles of grocery stores, shake hands and rename streets to win back the black vote. We need our schools. We need jobs. We need housing."

While Emanuel's office declined to respond to The Root's email question about waning support in the black community, his press secretary, Tarrah C. Cooper, explained his motive for renaming Stony Island Avenue.


"The renaming of Rev. Bishop Brazier Avenue is a fitting tribute to a person who influenced the city of Chicago," she wrote. "Bishop Brazier was an influential civil rights leader, bringing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Chicago to advocate for racial equality and fair housing in our city. Brazier was responsible for numerous housing development projects on the south side and several community education programs, including a $1,000,000 federally funded education project for low-income youth."

Further, she added that the mayor is committed to keeping the city safe. "Senseless and brazen acts of violence have no place in our city and betray all that we stand for," she wrote. "As the mayor and Superintendent McCarthy have said, we need stiffer penalties for gun crimes that carry real consequences for illegal gun possession. We need a three-year minimum penalty for [those] illegally carrying a gun on our streets. While Chicago has seen declines in crime, shootings and murders in 2013, there's much more work to be done and no one will rest until everyone in Chicago has the safety and security they deserve."


To be sure, wresting control of Chicago's violence is an ongoing pursuit for lawmakers. Davis told The Root that she supports calling in the National Guard to patrol parks, where many of the shootings have taken place. "It's something to consider," she said. "We need solutions."

Calling in more law enforcement to address the problem is unpopular among lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), whose congressional district has a high concentration of gun violence. (He is not related to state Rep. Davis.)


"The violence we are experiencing is more of an indication of a need for mental-health help," he told The Root. "Some things people may do because they have the availability of a gun. We do need to reduce the presence of guns in the community. I agree with Superintendent McCarthy that you can do as much policing as you can, but it does not change one's mental health or state of being."

As for the mayor's waning support in the black community, Danny Davis says that election time is a long ways away, but Emanuel does need to show more of a commitment to education. Changing street names isn't enough.


"Bishop Brazier was one of the most eloquent cats to ever step into a pulpit," Danny Davis said. "That's what people will remember come election time. Chicago is a very diverse city. Mayor Emanuel will not win an election catering to one particular group. But he is as astute of a politician as any other. He will figure it out."

Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root.

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