Mayoral Mayhem 

What Rahm really needs, Meeks's big gay liability, and why some candidates aren't in it to win it.

President Barack Obama and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel walk across the Rose Garden of the White House following the Economic Daily Briefing, which was held outdoors, June 17, 2010.

President Barack Obama and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel walk across the Rose Garden of the White House following the Economic Daily Briefing, which was held outdoors, June 17, 2010.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Three things you can count on in the upcoming mayoral election—which isn't until February but, let's face it, is all anyone in town is talking about.

Number one: The next mayor of Chicago will be Rahm Emanuel. Carve it in stone. Go to Vegas and make a large bet. We might even skip the time and expense of an election and go right to the coronation.

Well, there is this caveat. He needs a clear and consistent endorsement (including appearances and even commercials) from President Obama. Without that, I'm not sure Emanuel—who was raised in Wilmette and has spent much of his professional life in Washington—even survives the first round. (Yes, I predict there will be more than one round: if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the February 22 nonpartisan election, the top two vote-getters face off in an April 5 runoff.)

For Emanuel, the black vote is key. He's a north-side politician who's not well-known to black voters. That's why his ties to Obama are crucial. Black voters in Chicago are generally very proud of and loyal to Obama. If Obama comes out strong for his former chief of staff, Emanuel wins the black wards and with them the election.

What's that you say? You don't think blacks will vote for a white candidate in a race against black candidates, even with an Obama endorsement? Please, you're confusing blacks with whites. In Chicago, black voters have traditionally been more tolerant and open-minded than white ones. In 2003, for instance, alderman Thomas Murphy, running in the overwhelmingly black 18th Ward, took 81 percent of the vote, while his three black opponents got only 18 percent combined. But voters in a predominantly white ward have never elected a black alderman.

This mayoral election reminds me of the Fifth Ward aldermanic election of 1983, when six black candidates ran against the white incumbent, Larry Bloom in the predominantly black district that included much of Hyde Park and South Shore. I attended a debate that year at a South Shore library featuring all the candidates. The only thing the black challengers agreed on is that the time had come for one of them—any one would do—to replace Bloom. But Bloom won 64 percent of the vote.

Why? Not because south-side black voters loved him, though I'm sure some did, but because Harold Washington, then running for mayor, strongly endorsed him. Washington needed to use Bloom as much as Bloom needed to be used by Washington, who wanted to send a message to white and Jewish voters across the city that he was running a rainbow campaign.

Will Obama come out for Emanuel as strongly as Washington did for Bloom? The president's got to weigh his inclination to stay out of the swamp of local Chicago politics—as aldermen Howard Brookins and Ed Burke urged last week—against whatever loyalty he has to his former right-hand man. We shall see.

* Number two: The antediluvian attitudes of state senator James Meeks toward gays, not to mention his opposition to abortion (a topic for another day), will keep the reverend from being elected mayor.

Most voters in Chicago—especially north-siders—know very little about Meeks. But if he makes it to round two, they'll learn a lot about him. They'll hear, for instance, about the 2006 Halloween exhibit in the administrative offices of his church, Salem Baptist. Designed to "scare the hell out of teens," the "Nights of Terror" featured some interesting displays, Cathleen Falsani then observed in the Sun-Times: "A fenced-in cell housed a few denizens of 'hell,' including a pedophile trolling the Internet for a young victim, a meditating Buddhist, and two mincing young men wearing body glitter who were supposed to be homosexuals."

Voters will learn, as well, of Meeks's brief run for governor in 2006, during which he predicted that conservative white voters would back him because of his views on abortion and gay rights. Debra Pickett quoted him then in the Sun-Times: "You'll have [Republican candidate] Judy Baar Topinka, who believes in abortion and gay rights . . . and Rod Blagojevich, who believes in abortion and gay rights. Theologically, politically, for the white conservative voters, I'm their guy."

There may indeed be many white conservatives who enthusiastically share Reverend Meeks's social views, but not a lot of them live in Chicago. This city's as blue as a city gets. It voted over 80 percent for Al Gore in 2000, 81 percent for John Kerry in 2004, and 85 percent for Obama in 2008.

Part of Mayor Daley's success is that he has assiduously courted the gay community almost from the moment he took office. In 1989, he became the first sitting mayor to ride in the Gay Pride Parade. The parade has since become a command appearance for most Democrats: this year's participants included Governor Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and Joe Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and candidate for county assessor.

If you don't think there's animosity—especially on the north side—against candidates who are perceived to be anti-gay, consider the case of Tony Peraica, the Republican candidate for Cook County President in 2006. He might have beaten the eminently beatable Democratic opposition, Todd Stroger, had he not voted against a purely symbolic county board resolution welcoming the Gay Games to town. In her Sun-Times column last Friday, Michael Sneed reported that Meeks is trying to make amends by meeting with gay rights activists such as Rick Garcia. I don't think there's enough time to complete the political do-over Meeks is just now starting to attempt. Maybe they can hold a special New Year's Day Pride Parade so he can march in it.

* Number Three: A good number of the pols who say they're running, or say they're thinking about running, are blowing smoke.

Many of them are realistic enough to know they can't possibly win. But they throw their name into the discussion—in some cases going so far as to circulate nominating petitions—just to see what goodies (jobs, future endorsements, campaign contributions, and so on) they can extract for pulling out of a race they probably never intended to run in the first place.

Congressmen Luis Gutierrez knows what I mean. Four years ago, he was talking tough about running against Mayor Daley in the 2007 election. But ultimately he didn't run, and Daley coasted to victory against a weak field.

In exchange for endorsing Daley, Gutierrez says he simply extracted a vow from the mayor to not spend public money on the Olympics. Yet just a few days after winning reelection, Daley arm-twisted the City Council into setting aside $500 million in public money for the games. We never heard a peep from Gutierrez, who like all the rest of Chicago's congressional delegation (Emanuel included) hid out in Washington while Daley went on his great Olympic quest.

This time around Gutierrez tells me he hasn't made up his mind if he's going to run, though he's circulating nominating petitions—just in case. "I'm doing due deliberations," he says. "Like when you buy a house."

My hunch is he won't run this time either. If I'm right, we'll be watching to see what it gets him.

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