The Root Cities: Chicago's Political Power Brokers

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The annals of black Chicago politics read like a political thriller, full of intrigue, backroom deals and untimely deaths. The mayoral race has been a pivotal factor in determining who holds political power in black Chicago since the 1987 death of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor. At that point, African-American politics became splintered over the fight to replace him, and the split persists to this day.


Two camps, each supporting a different alderman (the equivalent of city councilman), developed during that struggle: One wanted Eugene Sawyer, and another wanted his rival, Tim Evans. The City Council eventually voted for Sawyer, who served for 17 months before Richard M. Daley was elected. Daley used the situation to form coalitions among black leaders that would help keep him in office for 21 years.

With Daley stepping down this year, however, voters will be picking a new mayor when they head to the polls on Feb. 22. And black leaders are scrambling to get a black candidate elected. Nine African Americans are considering running: U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, U.S. Sen. Roland W. Burris, State Sen. Rickey R. Hendon, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, State Rep. Annazette Collins, Urban Prep Academy founder Tim King, William Walls, State Sen. James T. Meeks and Board of Review Commissioner Larry R. Rogers.

Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff and a former Illinois congressman, is another candidate in the crowded field. But as The Root recently reported, so far he has received a chilly reception from the black community.

The Rise of the First Black Mayor

The black electorate in Chicago has long been an important voting bloc. It currently makes up 437,547 — or 33 percent — of the 1.3 million likely voters, according to Labels & Lists, a voter-data agency. Whites make up 36 percent of the electorate. Still, it's not as strong as it was — 40 percent — when Washington was elected. The city's black population has decreased as African Americans have fled the city for the suburbs in the pursuit of upward mobility and a better life. Others have moved to other cities to look for jobs as the Great Recession continues to whipsaw the economy.

Washington knew how to work the electorate as well as the notoriously corrupt Democratic political machine. He rose through the ranks of that machine, from Democratic precinct captain to six terms in the Illinois House of Representatives to senator and then mayor. His election thrust Chicago onto the national political stage, inspiring hope among black voters and elected officials alike.

His election also revealed deeply entrenched racism within Chicago's political machine. Washington spent much of his time sparring with the predominantly white City Council to pass his budgets and other initiatives. "It was an interesting time for the city," says political blogger Monroe Anderson, a former journalist at Newsweek and the Chicago Tribune who was press secretary for Eugene Sawyer. "Washington spent his first four years engaged in the City Council wars."


With the national spotlight on the City of Big Shoulders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson seized the opportunity in 1984 to run for president, becoming the second African American to do so after Shirley Chisholm. But after the 1980s, the city's African-American politics became largely inactive because of the schism between Sawyer and Evans, and Daley worked both sides to his advantage.

"What happened after Washington's death is that two African-American camps were formed almost immediately and ripped each other's heads off," Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass recently wrote. "Sawyer, who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in his college days, was quickly portrayed by his rival, Ald. Tim Evans, 4th [Ward], as an Uncle Tom, a tool of the white guys. Evans, who'd spent his youth marching with his Chicago machine boss, was cast as the hero of the independents and progressives … in that emotionally charged vacuum after Washington's death, black politics was broken."


Much of the city's black political power became concentrated in the hands of aldermen, Cook County elected officials and congressional officials. "Daley essentially [made deals with] black politicians who could win contracts and made power-sharing agreements with them so they could swing the opposition his way," Anderson says. "That's why he didn't face much opposition and there's such an open field now. It's a tossup who will win and whether it will be a black candidate. The deal with Rahm is that he has an incredible ability to fundraise. So that's a tossup, too."

Elusive Black Power

The inability of blacks to maintain a strong political power base in Chicago is nothing new, even though the city was founded by a black man, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, in the 1770s. DuSable, a black pioneer, found himself "isolated and pushed to the sidelines of Chicago life in the 1770s when large numbers of white Americans settled in the area, bringing with them traditional American perceptions," Lerone Bennett Jr. writes in Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. "If, as seems probable, DuSable was indeed the victim of his own creation, he shares that mournful distinction with thousands of other black pioneers who found themselves under increasing attack in the last decade of the eighteenth century." The subjugation continued through the Great Migration from the South to the North during the early 1900s.


After the civil rights movement, cities such as Detroit and Washington, D.C., began to elect the first wave of top black officials, such as mayors in the 1970s, mostly because blacks made up a larger percentage of their populations. Black Chicago did not really begin to flex its political muscles until the 1980s with the election of Washington — only to see them weaken after his death.

The 1990s saw the city's black politicians make a comeback. In 1993 Moseley Braun, a feisty member of the Illinois House, made history when she became the second African American elected to the U.S. Senate.


John H. Stroger, the first black president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners — the highest local office held by an African-American elected official —  was considered a strong political boss during his tenure from 1994 to 2006, although it was marred by accusations of scandal and patronage. He died of complications from a stroke in 2008.

His son, Todd H. Stroger, followed him into office, but his tenure has also been marked by accusations of political transgressions. He finished last in the Illinois Democratic primary and is now a lame duck as another African American, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, battles for the seat against a Republican and a member of the Green Party.


The Future Is Now

Chicago's black politicians were catapulted back onto the national political stage in 2008, first when then-Sen. Barack Obama became famous overnight after delivering a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention. Obama, of course, would give up that seat in his ultimately successful pursuit of the presidency.


Then, in late 2008, federal charges were brought against then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for allegedly trying to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat in exchange for financial benefits for himself and his wife. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., once considered a front-runner for mayor, was also alleged to have been involved in efforts to trade money for the seat — allegations that he has denied. Ultimately, scandal-plagued Blagojevich, before being removed from office, offered the seat to Roland Burris, who tarnished his own burnished image by accepting the appointment.

President Obama helped propel black Chicago politics into the public eye but did little to turn its players into power brokers because he didn't rise through the black political machine. But he did inspire black Chicago politicians to vie for top political spots in the city after a long dry spell.


Possible mayoral candidate Rep. Davis says that Chicago is in a transitional phase, and in need of harmony and engagement because of the woeful economy. The city faces a historic $652.7 million deficit, foreclosures abound and the blood of youths is being spilled in the streets because of multiple gang shootouts.

"The big issue in Chicago is how do you find the revenue to provide service to keep the city moving," he says. "You have to maintain and rebuild the infrastructure, shore up the school system and make it function in the best interest of all children. You have to build affordable housing that is needed, maintain a social order and create some jobs at the same time. If people don't have jobs, much of all the other things don't matter. You can't live or function."


One thing is for sure, according to another black politician, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who is serving as an elder statesman during the selection process for mayor: Blacks need to be united, he recently told the Chicago Sun-Times. He used his experience running against Mayor Daley in 1999 as an example.

"I declared myself a candidate, didn't talk to anybody or bring the community along, surprised some of my strongest supporters," he said. "They had no idea. I made a mistake. I learned from that mistake."


Lynette Holloway, a Chicago-based writer, is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.