Supporters believe the conditions might be perfect this fall for Daniel Seals to become the 10th Congressional District's first African American congressman. (Photo by Audrey Cho)

Daniel Seals’ bronze complexion has left many people guessing when they try to determine his racial background.

“People will walk up and start speaking Hebrew to me sometimes. They assume I’m Israeli,” said Seals, 34, the Democratic Party nominee for Illinois’ 10th Congressional District. “An Egyptian guy thought I had this whole kind of North African type of thing. Who knows, but all my family looks the way I do.”

Seals considers himself a “remix” since both of his parents are of mixed racial ancestry.

His father, George, who played guard for the Chicago Bears, and his mother, who worked as a social worker, identified themselves as African Americans. But Seals’ paternal grandmother was part-white and part-Native American. And both of Seals’ maternal grandparents were of mixed race. Seals believes his maternal great grandfather was Scottish-Irish because his last name was McClellan.

With his diverse heritage and a well-mobilized Democratic Party, supporters believe Seals may be in position to become the area’s first-ever African American congressman—and the first Democrat to win there in recent memory. In November, Seals will face U.S. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, the three-term Republican incumbent.

“In Mr. Seals, we see great promise—a young black man who is definitely capable in the same vein that [U.S. Sen. Barack] Obama is capable –¦ to provide fair, honest leadership in difficult times,” said state Rep. Eddie Washington, a Democrat and the first African American from Lake County to be elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

Seals said that Obama and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Illinois’ first black senator and the state’s only female senator, paved the way for African Americans to run for federal offices, but he is happy to say that most people define him by his character. “I firmly believe that, if race is in there somewhere, it is not a barrier to victory,” Seals said as he knocked on wood.

Aside from his heritage, diversity has been a constant throughout Seals’ life. The Chicago native was born in the South Shore neighborhood but spent most of his childhood in the racially diverse Hyde Park neighborhood. “It made, for me, growing up a very interesting experience because you could mix with all of these different folks—and I’m not going to try to paint it as heaven, but it was great that race was not the number one factor,” Seals said.

After graduating from Boston University with a journalism degree, Seals taught English for two years at a public high school in Japan, where he became fluent in Japanese.

After returning to the U.S., Seals got his first taste of working on Capitol Hill. While attending the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, he won a Presidential Management Fellowship. He spent the first half of his fellowship working on trade issues at the U.S. Department of Commerce and the second half assisting in the development of U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s economic agenda.

Seals met his wife, Mia, who is Japanese, in an economics class at John Hopkins. After college, they moved back to Hyde Park and attended the University of Chicago, where Seals earned his M.B.A.

A lifelong Democrat, Seals decided to get more involved in the Democratic Party after watching the results on Election Day 2004. “We get our message out, and it appeals to most people, and here we have an election with record turnout, and we got whipped. It forced me to recalibrate my view of the country,” Seals said.

He took a year’s absence from his job as the director of marketing for GE Commercial Finance to work on his campaign. In March, Seals won 70 percent of the vote in the 10th District’s Democratic Primary against Zane Smith, a trial lawyer.

Seals said that the district has long been considered “Rockefeller Republican.” The last Democratic congressman elected there was Abner Mikva in 1978. However, during the last two decades the district’s demographics and politics have changed drastically.

The district runs along the coast of Lake Michigan from Winnetka to Waukegan, encompassing most of Lake County and portions of Cook County as far south as Wilmette. The area is generally considered to be a haven of upper-middle class, white Republicans, but there are large pockets of ethnic and economic diversity.

In 2004, Latinos accounted for 17.6 percent of Lake County residents, according to census estimates. African Americans made up about 6 percent of the county’s population, with large concentrations in North Chicago and Waukegan.

In 2004, about 18 percent of Lake County residents were foreign-born, according to census estimates. While most were Latinos, there were thousands of Koreans, Indians, Chinese and Filipinos.

In addition, while Lake Forest residents pulled in $77,092 on average in 1999, the per capita income for North Chicago was $14,564—more than $7,000 below the national average.

The Rev. Clyde H. Brooks, a community leader from Mount Prospect, said Seals can appeal to voters of all races. Brooks said that, in past elections, many racial minorities have felt that neither party was listening to their needs. “Seals has an appeal to minorities but also to [whites]. That makes him a great candidate. That will make him a great congressman,” Brooks said. “Because that’s what we need to bring Americans together rather than have this division along racial lines.”

And the district is no longer a Republican stronghold, said Daniel Venturi, Lake County’s Republican Party chairman.

The district’s high numbers of independent voters and the recent Democratic Party organizing efforts have made political races at every level more competitive, Venturi said. “The days when, if you are a Republican, you win and, if you are a Democrat, you lose, are over.” In each of the last three presidential elections, district voters preferred the Democratic candidate.

Part of this recent shift is due to the efforts of the “Tenth Dems,” a political group founded by four-term state Rep. Lauren Beth Gash prior to the 2004 election. The Tenth Dems have worked to organize Democrats all over the district by holding forums and caucuses in every township, most of which had never before held Democratic caucuses.

In 2004, the group assisted the campaigns of seven candidates for offices in Moraine Township, winning six of the seats. The group also helped recruit candidates for local elections and statewide offices that had often gone to uncontested Republicans in the past.

When Kirk was first elected congressman, he squeaked by Gash, 51 percent to 49 percent. In each of his two re-election bids, Kirk won convincingly, capturing at least 64 percent of the vote both times.

In order for Seals to put up a good showing against Kirk, he’ll need to raise a lot more money. The latest figures from the Federal Election Commission show that Kirk had nearly $1.9 million cash on hand. Seals had about $508,000.

However, some of Illinois’ Democratic Party powerhouses are lending a hand, hosting or making appearances during five fundraisers on Seals’ behalf in June alone. Each of the fundraisers featured at least one of Illinois’ two U.S. Senators, Obama and Dick Durbin, or Congressmen Rahm Emanuel, Jan Schakowsky and Danny K. Davis.

Seals may also need a strong showing from black and Latino voters, who typically haven’t turned out at the polls as often as white voters.

Nearly 77 percent of Lake County’s registered voters came to the polls in the November 2004 election. But, of the 15 precincts with the highest African American populations, voter turnout exceeded 60 percent in just one precinct. Of the 15 precincts with the highest Latino populations, just two precincts surpassed 60 percent turnout.

But Democratic Party observers expect to see an interesting race. “I guess you could say he’s an unknown coming in, but so was Barack Obama,” North Chicago Mayor Leon Rockingham Jr. said.