“Disappointment” was the word used by several African-American community leaders who’ve worked for independent politics, describing their reaction to President Obama’s endorsement of Mayor Rahm Emanuel – though they questioned how much influence it will have.
Referring to African-American voters’ support for Emanuel in 2011 based on his association with Obama, two cited the adage, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
One suggested that, as a prominent local leader who has gone toe-to-toe with Emanuel, Karen Lewis’ endorsement of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia could carry more weight with many voters.
“I was very disappointed,” said Richard Barnett, the legendary West Side political organizer. “I think it was a disservice on the part of the president for the simple reason that we supported him too much – and Emanuel has done us too bad – for him to have gotten into this campaign.”
The endorsement reflects the fact that “Rahm Emanuel is very scared, especially regarding his standing in the black community, and he thinks this will sway African-American voters,” said Bob Starks, a longtime activist and columnist for the Chicago Defender.
“It will have some influence but not as much as [Emanuel would] like, because people are really very sour on a number of issues,” Starks said. “Emanuel closed 50 schools and that’s really a very big issue with this community. People are really angry about that – not only the fact of the closings but the arrogance with which he did it.”
“It’s disappointing because it doesn’t reflect the sentiment of the community that has been so loyal to him,” said political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who said the president “snubbed his nose at the black community, which has always been there for him.”
She took issue with the content of Obama’s radio commercial, which admits Emanuel “can be hard-headed” but insists his heart is in the right place.
“It’s insulting to think the black community’s trouble with Rahm Emanuel is about his personality or his being hard-headed,” Cobb said. “Rahm started with an A in the black community and now he has an F,” Cobb said. “There is a reason for that, and it’s not because of his abrasive personality.”
“African-American voters have been hurt by Rahm Emanuel’s decisions to close schools and clinics, and an endorsement by the president isn’t going to wipe that away,” said Bronzeville leader Jay Travis, who chaired Lewis’ exploratory committee last year. “I don’t think the people who have been hurt by his policies have such short memories.”
Travis said that Lewis’ endorsement of Garcia is a factor for many people she talks with. “When I’m out knocking on doors, people value Karen Lewis’ perspective,” she said. “She’s viewed as a real leader in this city, someone who stood up to the worst policies of the mayor. … She’s been on the front line of the fight to keep our public institutions open and to stop the devastation of black and brown communities,” she said.
She notes that Garcia’s connections to the black community go far beyond his historic role in the Harold Washington administration. “I met Chuy [when I was] an organizer attempting to get more resources for our neighborhood schools, when he was very much in the thick of the fight for a new high school in Little Village. He’s worked to end the school-to-prison pipeline and to find solutions to the foreclosure crisis,” she said.
“As people know more about his work and his vision – when they know what he’s done and what he stands for – they are on board to support him,” Travis said.
At a huge Garcia rally in Woodlawn last weekend, Karen Lewis herself made the same point. To a crowd of community and labor activists from around the city, she said, “We need each of you out there every day, talking to people, explaining that we need a change and that Chuy is that change.”
“We need someone who understands what our lives are like on an everyday basis and who isn’t contemptuous of that,” Lewis said. “We need someone someone who has a vision.”
The enthusiasm of the rally reached a peak as Garcia offered a populist stemwinder of a speech: “Taking Chicago back is another step for people across this country who are saying we cannot have our government hijacked from us by investment bankers and hedge fund managers,” he said.
Many in the crowd were veterans of organizing against school closings and other service cuts and of campaigns to shift TIF spending away from corporate subsidies. And as one participant noted, a good number of those present had worked on Obama’s behalf long before he ran for president.