Year of the Black Candidate

Many Black candidates sought and won office in the 2006 takeover by the Democrats.

BY Laura S. Washington

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From Chicago to Newark, the fiery preachers are being eased aside by political professionals armed with polls, mailing lists and PACs.

Run, Jesse, run! In September, on Chicago’s South Side, the script was flipped. This time it’s Junior who’s aiming for the top of the ticket. The young-uns may be taking over. It’s about time.

On Sept. 6, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) beckoned the media to his front lawn in Jackson Park Heights to announce that if he can raise $4 to $6 million and register 100,000 new voters, he will run for mayor of Chicago.

The six-term congressman and first-born son of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. hopes to take on the scion of another legendary political family, Richard M. Daley. It’s almost certain Daley, Chicago’s chief executive since 1989, will run for one more term in the February 2007 mayoral primary. A win would set him up to surpass the tenure of his father, Richard J. Daley, who died in 1976 after 21 years in office.

They called the senior Daley “the boss.” Daley the younger has been dubbed “mayor for life.” In recent months, however, his clout has faded in the face of a growing, multi-layered federal investigation into alleged corrupt hiring and contracting practices.

Jackson, 41, has hammered at Daley and a Democratic Party establishment that, he says, “is part of a prehistoric and bygone era that somehow slipped into the 21st Century.” He suggests the Daley administration is neglecting the city’s have-nots, and voters want change.

Two other African-American pols have already announced they will challenge Daley: Dorothy Brown, Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court, and community activist Bill “Dock” Walls. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a Puerto Rican who represents part of Chicago’s North Side, is also mulling a run. Still, it’s the prospect of a Daley/Jackson match-up that has the political junkies salivating.

From Chicago to Los Angeles to Newark, efforts like Jackson’s may be signaling a changing of the guard. The fiery preachers who rely on race-based protest tactics are being eased aside by political professionals bearing arsenals of polls, mailing lists and PACs. For example, Adrian Fenty, the 35-year-old Democratic nominee who is looking like the certain winner in Washington D.C.’s mayoral race, is known to carry two Blackberries.

Don Rose, a Chicago-based political consultant and longtime Jackson-watcher, cites two developments: Barack Obama’s elevation to a U.S. Senate seat in 2004 and Corey Booker’s capture of Newark’s City Hall. A victory for Jackson may “represent the prospect of a new generation of black urban leadership,” says Rose, an advisor to Harold Washington, who was elected Chicago’s first black mayor on a progressive platform.

The pundits have already pegged 2006 as the Year of the Black Candidate, as a plethora of African-American hopefuls run for top tier slots nationwide.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) is looking to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. Retired Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann wants to unseat Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Ken Blackwell aims to be Ohio’s next governor; ditto for Assistant U.S. Attorney Gen. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and former NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume made respective bids in the Republican and Democratic senate primaries.

They represent a sign of political maturity and diversity in black leadership–three of them are Republican and only one, Mfume, is tied to the ossified civil rights establishment. That connection may have worked against him–he lost his Sept. 12 primary bid.

Jackson represents both the old and the new. He was elected in 1995 to represent Chicago’s 2nd Congressional District, which spans the city’s South Side and Southern suburbs. He has since crafted a solid progressive voting record, bolstered by a sophisticated political apparatus that employs internet-based fundraising and issue-based communications.

Jackson learned much at daddy’s knee. His father, the founder of Rainbow PUSH, remains a civil rights icon who has advised and scolded presidents, run twice for president himself, and has traversed the world’s troubled spots as an unofficial ambassador. However, the elder Jackson is also at the front of a withering line of ’60s activists that don’t connect with younger voters.

“Junior” must stretch way beyond the base of elderly and church-going blacks that know his father best. Mirroring the nation, Chicago’s fastest-growing ethnic group is Latino. White progressives are another crucial constituency in building a cohesive progressive agenda.

In some circles, Jackson’s controversial father may be a liability, and the son’s ability to attract voters outside of the base is untested. He must burnish his progressive credentials and hone his vote-getting abilities to succeed. One thing’s for sure: Get ready for some colorful and contentious political theatre.

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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