Friday, October 8, 2010

Can Meeks make peace w/ rest of Chgo?

Rev. (and Sen.) James Meeks
I appreciate that the Rev. James Meeks, pastor of the Salem Baptist Church, is a political force who is ignored only by fools. Anyone who can attract the devotion of 24,000 people to be parishioners in his church is someone who has people skills solid enough to attract backers come Election Day.

In fact, I fully expect that when the Chicago mayoral campaigning gets intense, what will happen is that Meeks will be the dominant voice in select inner-city wards on Chicago’s South and West sides. There will be people living in those predominantly African-American sections who will perceive this campaign as “Rev. Meeks” running against a bunch of white guys offering up the same old rhetoric.

CONSIDERING THIS IS an election cycle that will have multiple candidates, none of whom will gain a majority of support on their own, it is totally possible that Meeks can use that dominance of those inner-city neighborhoods to finish either first or second, meaning he would qualify for the runoff required by state law if no one gets a 50 percent-plus-1 majority in a nonpartisan election.

So the question becomes whether Meeks’ appeal is so limited that his irrelevance outside of those inner-city neighborhoods will ensure that Meeks finishes second (meaning, he loses) the runoff election, regardless of who he would wind up running against.

I was encouraged to learn that Meeks, who since 2002 has also been a state senator from the far South Side of Chicago (although in recent years, he has taken to keeping his legislative office in the suburbs, just west of the River Oaks Shopping Center in Calumet City), is going out of his way to meet with various groups of potential voters who are not among his inner-city base.

It is evidence of maturity; a sense that he needs to reach out to some. That includes a recent lengthy meeting with gay rights activists, who have had their concerns about Meeks throughout the years because of the fact that his religious rhetoric includes a hostility toward gay people.

I DON’T THINK we need to recall the Halloween haunted house of a few years ago that was sponsored by Meeks, and included among its “horrors” a couple of gay people who had been condemned to Hell for their orientation.

I’ll give Meeks credit for not making the same mistake that Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Poshard made back in 1998. He figured that a rural Illinois voter base would be sufficient to win, so he made no gestures to indicate support for gay people. His few meetings with them were viewed by the activists as his attempts to convince them how wrong they were.

Meeks seems to be listening.

Now it is not so much that Meeks needs the gay activists on his side. It is that he needs to ensure that people who might very well be heterosexual in their orientation but don’t appreciate hostility toward anyone don’t automatically think of the words “homophobe” or “bigot” when they hear the name “Meeks.”

I’M A LITTLE concerned when I read that Meeks is upset that anyone is pointing out the fact that he had such meetings, claiming to reporter-types that no one made a big deal when he met with Latino activists.

Then again, to my knowledge, Meeks has never done anything blatantly hostile toward Latino interests (except for those Latinos who are gay), such as his attempts in the Illinois Legislature to oppose measures meant to protect the civil rights of all people – regardless of orientation.

Such measures may play well with his base of support (homophobia isn’t restricted purely to conservative white people). But the ability to win a city-wide election at the top of the ticket involves being able to reach out to many different types of people.

Let’s not forget that Harold Washington himself was as dominant among the African-American voters of Chicago as Meeks has the potential to be. But he won because he was able to take a significant part of the Latino vote and the so-called “Lakefront Liberal” vote – exactly the people who might very well be opposed to Meeks if he doesn’t show an ability to reach out.

MEEKS ALSO HAS gained attention this week for his moment of stubbornness. He insists he will continue to run the Salem Baptist Church, even if he gets elected mayor. He claims that being state senator hasn’t impeded his ability to run the church.

The only difference is that state Legislator literally is a part-time position. It is meant to be something that dominates an official’s life during the springtime months that the Legislature is in session, then takes up little time as they work their jobs (many of whom are attorneys or business owners who can afford to take time off to be government officials).

But Mayor of Chicago is a full-time job. Aside from the issue of separation of church and state, there is no way to do both jobs without short-changing one, or both.

Some officials think his refusal to give up the church will hurt him with voters, although I am not convinced. Because I think the kind of people who would vote for Meeks in the first place will do so BECAUSE he is a pastor. But more importantly, I think Meeks will come to his senses and realize that there isn’t enough time in the day to do justice to both jobs.

AFTER ALL, HE’S not a god. He’s just a man who tries to interpret the words of God.

His presence in the mayoral campaign could well take the politicking to a new level. I would only hope that would be a positive, because I’d hate to think of how sinful political trash-talk with religious overtones would become.


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