Reps rush, Davis under pressure to step aside
by RUSS STEWART
In the realm of Chicago’s black politics, the vernacular of fast-food chains is nowhere apparent. "Step aside" is not part of the political lexicon.
Once ensconced in Chicago, Cook County or congressional office, black politicians stay in that sinecure until death, conviction or primary defeat do they part.
To bastardize another popular phrase, "once an office goes black, it never goes back." The theory of "nonretrogression" has become reality — it is deemed politically incorrect, if not overtly racist, for a candidate who is not black to reclaim or even try to win any office currently occupied by an African American, and it is illegal to transform congressional and legislative districts and city wards from "majority minority" to "minority minority."
In Democratic-dominated Cook County, the white and Hispanic political bosses have conceded that African Americans "own" the offices of Cook County Board president, recorder of deeds, clerk of the Circuit Court, city treasurer, five county commissioners, three Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioners, one Board of Review commissioner and, importantly, three congressional districts.
Off the table, of course, are such omnipotent jobs as mayor, sheriff, assessor and state’s attorney, as well as county clerk and treasurer. No black politician need apply.
Among black Chicagoans with long memories, the giddy euphoria of Harold Washington’s 4 1/2-year reign as mayor is a source of unending frustration. With each passing year, more Chicago African Americans move to the suburbs, more whites move into the city, and the Hispanic population keeps climbing. The "next black mayor" has become a fantasy. A more immediate source of frustration is black politicians’ inability to develop a farm team of future mayoral candidates, and that irritation currently is focused on U.S. Representatives Bobby Rush (D-1) and Danny Davis (D-7) and the disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sandi Jackson.
As Washington proved, a congressional seat is a visible and viable steppingstone to the real prize — the mayoralty. Although he served as a congressman only from 1980 to 1983, Washington was the South Side’s preeminent black politician. Rush, age 66, who was first elected in 1992, ran for mayor in 1999 and got a weak 28 percent of the vote. Davis, age 71, who was first elected in 1996, ran for mayor in 1991 and got 37 percent of the vote.
Their refusal to step aside has created a horrific logjam among ambitious black aldermen, state legislators and county commissioners, all of whom view Congress as a ticket to City Hall. "They’ve been ‘incumbentized,’" Joe Ziegler, an 18th Ward politician, said of Rush and Davis. "They’ve been around so long that they’re institutions. They cannot be beaten (in a primary)."
Jesse Jackson Jr., who was elected to Congress in 1995, was once the "Great Black Hope." He had the name, black base and nationwide resources to compete. Now he’s the "Great Black Dope," off to prison.
Historically, Chicago’s black congressmen obeyed the maxim that it’s better to be seen and not heard. Here’s a sketch:
1st District: This consisted of the city’s "black belt," taking in the South Side 2nd and 3rd wards. Chicago’s black population in 1920 was 109,525; it grew to 277,731 by 1940 and to 519,437 in 1950. Almost all were clustered in the "black belt." The city’s black population in 2010 was 890,000, 371,000 more than 60 years previously.
From 1904 to 1928, the district’s congressman was Martin Madden, a white Republican and an ally of Republican Mayor Big Bill Thompson. Until the Depression, blacks were staunchly Republican, loyal to the "Party of Lincoln." In 1928 Thompson dictated the election of Republican Oscar DePriest, the 2nd Ward alderman, as the first black congressman in the 20th Century. DePriest opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s "New Deal," and he was defeated in 1934 by Democrat Arthur Mitchell. Mitchell retired in 1942, and Democratic Mayor Ed Kelly prevailed on Bill Dawson, the 2nd Ward’s Republican alderman from 1933 to 1939, to run as a Democrat. Dawson won, and he became the 2nd Ward’s Democratic committeeman and the boss of the "black belt." He controlled hundreds of jobs and the area’s lucrative betting racket. He produced lopsided 10-1 vote margins, and he provided critical votes for Richard J. Daley in 1955 and 1963. As to such issues as civil rights, Dawson was a sphinx.
When Dawson, who was the chairman of a powerful congressional committee, died in 1970, his domain extended to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 20th wards. He was replaced by 3rd Ward Alderman Ralph Metcalfe, then age 60, also seen but not heard during his years (1949 to 1970) in the City Council. However, when a friend, a black physician, was roughed up by police during a traffic stop, Metcalfe had an epiphany, suddenly discovering that the Daley machine treated blacks differently — as mere votes to be harvested and ignored. Metcalfe emerged as the first "Great Black Hope," toyed with running for mayor in 1975 and 1977, but then died in 1978.
Metcalfe’s ballot replacement was Bennett Stewart, the docile 21st Ward alderman. Sensing an opportunity, Washington, then a state senator, challenged Stewart in 1980, and a battle royale for control of the South Side ensued. In the primary, Washington got 30,522 votes (48 percent of the total cast), with Ralph Metcalfe Jr. (19 percent), Stewart (17 percent) and John Stroger (16 percent) far behind. When Mayor Jane Byrne infuriated blacks with her appointments, Washington was positioned to capitalize.
After beating Byrne and Richard M. Daley, Washington anointed Charles Hayes, a 65-year-old union official, as the "caretaker congressman." It was understood that Washington would take back the seat if he lost in 1987. Washington got only 36.3 percent of the vote in the three-way 1983 primary and 51.7 percent against Bernard Epton in the election. After Washington’s 1987 death, Hayes’ caretaking days were numbered.
In 1983 Rush, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, allied himself with Washington and ousted the 2nd Ward’s pro-Byrne black alderman, William Barnett, with 52 percent of the vote. In 1992 Rush toppled Hayes in the primary, 54,231-50,191. In 2000 Rush was challenged by Barack Obama, then a state senator, and beat him 59,599-26,649, with 61 percent of the vote.
The 2011 remap extended Rush’s Chicago district far out into the southwestern suburbs, stretching from Markham through Tinley Park to Mokena, New Lenox, Frankfort and Manhattan in Will County. The district is slightly more than 55 percent black, but almost 70 percent of the Democratic primary voters are black.
Aldermen Will Burns (5th) and Howard Brookins (21st) and state Senator Kwame Raoul are eying the seat. All have the smarts to be a "next black mayor." An interesting possibility is white 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti, who could win against a large field of black candidates.
2nd District: By the mid-1960s, the black population had pushed south to the city limits, taking in the 7th, 8th, 9th and 34th wards, along with the Hyde Park 5th Ward — enough for a new congressional district, but the machine split black residents between two districts, delaying the election of a black congressman until 1980.
He was Gus Savage, a newspaper publisher and "black power" advocate renowned for his anti-white, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric. After two tries, Mel Reynolds finally beat Savage in the 1992 primary, but Reynolds was indicted on 12 criminal counts of sexual assault, obstruction of justice and solicitation of child pornography, and he was off to prison.
Jackson faced two formidable foes in the special 1995 election, state Senators Emil Jones and Alice Palmer, and he won with 46 percent of the vote. Like the 1st District, the 2011 remap pushed Jackson’s district far out into the south suburbs of Olympia Fields and Calumet City, plus the east halves of Tinley Park and Frankfort and down through Will County (Peotone) to the south border of Kankakee County. The district is 58 percent black. Kelly, of Matteson, easily won the 2013 special election, but she won’t be a player in Chicago politics.
7th District: It wasn’t until after World War II that blacks began migrating from the South to the West Side, settling first in once-Jewish Lawndale. By the 1970s Austin was predominantly black, as was the Eisenhower Expressway corridor. The area had two white Democratic congressmen, Adolph Sabath (1907 to 1952) and Tom O’Brien (1933 to 1964), followed later by Roland Libonati and Frank Annunzio. By 1970 the district’s black population, even with the inclusion of Cicero and Berwyn, was almost 70 percent, so the machine bequeathed the seat to George Collins, a docile black alderman from the 24th Ward. When Collins died in a 1972 plane crash, his wife Cardiss Collins was tapped, and she served quietly until 1996. When she retired, a tempestuous primary ensued.
The winner was Davis, another Washington acolyte and a former 29th Ward (Austin) alderman and county commissioner. He got 33 percent of the vote, beating a tough field, including three aldermen and another county commissioner — a virtual who’s who of West Side powerhouses. Davis pondered bids for county board president in 2010 and for mayor in 2011. He is a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and he is unbeatable. The district, which is 62 percent black, extends into Maywood, Oak Park, River Forest, Hillside and Broadview.
Waiting in the wings are Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough, of Maywood, and county Commissioner Robert Steele, Aldermen Walter Burnett (27th), Jason Ervin (28th) and Deborah Graham (29th), and Davis aide Rich Boykin, all Chicagoans.
This much is clear: Until Rush and Davis are replaced, the only black politician with the credibility and base to be "next black mayor" is Toni Preckwinkle, the 66-year-old county board president. If she doesn’t run in 2015, her time will have passed.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.