A handful of Chicagoans will go to the polls on March 18 and do something remarkable: they will ask for a Republican ballot.
Only 15 percent of Chicago voters in the 2012 primaries went with the GOP. That was up from less than 9 percent in 2010.
In the city's African-American wards, a Republican vote is even more extraordinary. In 2010, for example, 5,700 Democratic ballots were cast in the 28th Ward on the west side—and just 50 Republican ballots. In the south-side 17th Ward, 7,193 voted Democratic and 58 voted Republican.
"With blacks, it's like, your mother was a Baptist, so you're a Baptist; your mother was a Democrat, so you're a Democrat," Darnell Macklin says.
Macklin hopes to help change this inclination. Since 2012 he's been the GOP committeeman of the 6th Ward, an office he won by amassing 62 votes, crushing his main opponent, Jackie Robinson, who got 29. "My true affinity has always been with the Republicans," Macklin says. "I've been thinking like one all my life. I came home in the last 15 years."
A 62-year-old African-American, Macklin was born and raised on the south side. He worked for the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, then for the city after Harold Washington became mayor in 1983. His last job before retiring was with the city's Commission on Human Relations, for whom he investigated discrimination complaints.
He says he'd always considered himself an independent voter, although he often voted Democratic. That changed after he had children and bought a house. "Like they say, 'If you have kids and you're not a Republican, by the time you have property and kids you will be a Republican.' My taxes were getting higher, my buying power was less, the schools weren't good. The blame had to go somewhere, and the Democrats had been in power the last 50 years."
Macklin says blacks in Chicago tend to believe that Democrats have always been in their corner and Republicans always against them. But when Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches in the south in the 1960s, "it was the Democrats turned Dixiecrats that were siccing dogs on us," he says. And he notes that many of the judges who ruled against Jim Crow laws in the south were appointed by Republican president Dwight Eisenhower.
"We have the highest rate of incarceration. We have the highest rate of young people who haven't finished high school. We have the highest rate of unmarried mothers. We have the highest rate of unemployment. We need to give the other side a chance to show what they can do."—Darnell Macklin, GOP committeeman of the 6th Ward
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made blacks more beholden to the Democratic Party, though Macklin thinks it shouldn't have. When the legislation was pending in the Senate that year, southern Democrats filibustered for 57 days to block it, and it was a Republican senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen, who engineered the act's passage. But blacks in Chicago were "enamored" with President Lyndon Johnson and the recently slain President John F. Kennedy, Macklin says, and gave Democrats the credit.
"Since then, the Democrats here have gotten the credit for everything," he says. He argues that the party's leaders have taken the black vote for granted, and that Chicago's African-Americans have suffered as a result. "It's like, 'Well, we got your vote anyway.'"
When he tries to persuade other blacks to vote Republican, Macklin asks them what they have to show for their years of Democratic loyalty. "I tell them, 'We have a lot to show for it. We have the highest rate of incarceration. We have the highest rate of young people who haven't finished high school. We have the highest rate of unmarried mothers. We have the highest rate of unemployment. We need to give the other side a chance to show what they can do.'"
He also explains what he stands for: the right to keep and bear arms; school vouchers, to give parents a broader choice; reform of the criminal justice system; and limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. (He's OK with civil unions.) "And you know what most people tell me? 'We stand for the same things.'"
His daughter, Fatimah Macklin, is seeking the Republican nomination for state representative in the 34th District, which stretches south from Chatham into Kankakee County. Fatimah Macklin has taught in the city colleges and worked as a research scientist. She's pushing for a balanced state budget. She's opposed in the primary by Mark Ekhoff, a maintenance manager who lives in Kankakee County.
While going door-to-door for his daughter, Macklin has found that most older African-Americans are set in their Democratic ways, but that younger voters often respond positively to him. "People ask me, 'Can you get me a job? If you can get me a job, I'll be a Republican.' I tell them, 'That's what I'm working on.'"
He voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. The election of an African-American as president "was good symbolically," he says. But he thinks it hasn't helped most black people or poor people. "Barack talks about the 1 percent. What is he? I tell people, 'Who do you think he'd rather play golf with, Romney or you?'"
Macklin says Republican candidates face a practical problem in the black wards. In many precincts, even the Republican election judges are often Democrats who are just doing the job for the pay. "The judges automatically give you a Democratic ballot," he says. "You have to ask for a Republican ballot." He thinks some potential Republican voters are too embarrassed to make the public declaration.
Macklin supports Bruce Rauner for governor. He says many African-Americans he's talked with expect that Rauner will win the Republican nomination and go on to beat Governor Pat Quinn in November. Some Sixth Ward residents who know that Macklin supports Rauner are "hedging their bets" right now, he says—they've taken absentee Republican ballots, or have pledged to vote Republican. "They're thinking, 'If Rauner wins, I can go see Brother Macklin'" about a job.
He says it's possible he'll have some jobs to hand out. "If I can increase my vote totals, I'll have more juice, as they say. I can get [within] earshot of Rauner."
There's certainly room for increasing the GOP vote in Macklin's ward. In the 2010 primary, 87 Republican ballots were cast—compared with 11,281 Democratic ballots. In the 2012 primary, the ward's Republican vote climbed to 134, but that was still just 1.3 percent of the total.
"I'm thinking 5 percent this time, and I'm hoping for 8 percent," Macklin says.
He knows that may be wishful thinking. If he doesn't reach those goals, "I'm going to keep working," he says. "I've only been doing this two years. I know it's not going to change overnight."
Lisa Schulz helped research this story.