Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Will campaign racial/ethnic appeals work?

Todd Stroger wants to be sure we comprehend that he’s the official “black” candidate running for Cook County Board president, while Rudy Lozano Jr. is making sure we all understand that he’s the Latino running for a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives.

I’m not sure how it’s all going to play out for the latter, but I’m skeptical that going for the racial vote will be enough to ensure that Stroger gets the nomination to run for another term as county president come the November general election.

NOW I’M WILLING to give Stroger the benefit of the doubt that he would never have approved the flier circulating in select South Side neighborhoods that portrays a local government consisting of white Irish guys – IF Stroger is not re-elected.

It also uses bluntly racial slurs to depict the other African-American candidates running against Stroger in the Feb. 2 primary. It’s a scare tactic meant to try to stir up the black vote in Chicago to turn out in percentages that haven’t been seen since the days of Harold Washington.

But Stroger doesn’t need to resort to such blunt tactics when his own official campaign stunts also play off the idea that black people should want Todd back in office to look out for their interests.

Several government officials on Tuesday made it public that they support Strogoer for re-election, including the county board members who kept voting in his favor with regards to repealing a portion of the county’s share of sales tax revenues.

ANOTHER OF THOSE government officials who is willing to back Todd publicly is Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., the man who most recently is remembered for a borderline incoherent diatribe in support of Roland Burris for the U.S. Senate.

Some pundits (the ones who most enjoy getting up on their pedestals and giving us their Rush Limbaugh impersonations for being balls of hot gas) are saying that Rush is engaging in race-baiting politics, and will continue that trend in speaking out publicly for Stroger.

I’ll agree that Rush is part of an effort to get those old-school black activist-type voters to make the effort to turn out on Election Day to cast ballots. But I’m not sure I see that as some sort of evil conspiracy.

Or should we think it equally reprehensible that, earlier this week, Rush’s congressional colleague, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., performed her own endorsement stunt by backing Stroger opponent Toni Preckwinkle.

SHE LABELLED PRECKWINKLE, an alderman from the Hyde Park neighborhood, as the only “progressive” candidate in the campaign, and there is a good chance that many of the more liberal voters who normally are needed to elect a black candidate over the vociferous right wing that wants to believe picking better qualified people always means going with the white guy will side with her.

One could argue that the Preckwinkle endorsement will carry with it certain racial connotations. So I’m not offended by Rush. Not nearly as much as by the activity of Wallace “Gator” Bradley, the South Side political activist who allegedly was behind the fliers that labelled some black government officials as “house n----rs” for the white political establishment.

Insofar as Stroger’s chances of winning only with the black vote, I can’t help but look back at Chicago mayoral elections of the past couple of decades where Richard M. Daley ran against African-American candidates who tried to win with only the black vote (instead of the black, liberal white and Latino coalition that put Washington in office in 1983 and 1987).

Rush should remember He was Daley’s Election Day victim in 1999, and had no better luck with such a strategy than did people like Tim Evans or Danny Davis.

THEN, WE GET to the case of Lozano, who wants to enter electoral politics in the way that most people in Chicago do so – they gain experience and training by winning a position in the Illinois Legislature.

Specifically, Lozano wants the Illinois House seat for his home community, which is a majority Latino (mostly Mexican-American) neighborhood and is surrounded by neighborhoods with significant Latino populations.

The “problem” is that the district has been represented in Springfield by Dan Burke, who not only has the advantages of incumbency but also of family – his brother is the long-serving, influential alderman Ed Burke. Part of Burke’s influence in city government comes from the fact that he has a “family connection” at the Statehouse in Springpatch.

So even though the neighborhood is no longer the Polish/German/Irish mixture that it once was, the Burkes are going to go all out to keep the seat.

LOZANO AND HIS supporters on Tuesday held their own press conference to complain about Burke’s campaign fliers – which they say try to make it appear as though Latino community leaders who support Lozano actually back Burke.

Lozano-ites go so far as to call these fliers “racist,” although not having actually seen one but had them described to me, they sound like the usual campaign confusion. Trash, best tossed into the can to eliminate litter – rather than becoming the basis of a campaign “issue.”

But it did give Lozano a chance to remind voters once again that their neighborhood has changed, and that perhaps it is time for people to re-think who they are sending to Springfield to represent them.

Now I’m not saying flat out that Burke needs to go. He has made some efforts to keep in touch with the growing Latino constituency (which encompasses about two-thirds of the Southwest Side legislative district'sa registered voters). Ultimately, Lozano needs to convince voters he can better serve the people.

IF HE CAN do that, then he deserves to win. If he can’t, then Burke should get to extend his public service into a third decade (he has been in the Illinois House since 1991).

But this campaign ultimately reflects on the shifting population of Chicago and the surrounding area, and Burke would hardly be the first official to depart because of demographics. Take Vito Marzullo, the alderman who served in the City Council for three decades until retiring because the changing demographics turned his community from Italian to Latino.

There are times when a politician’s changing neighborhood has been evidence that it was time to go.


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