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Mitchell: How Rahm Emanuel won black voters

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel thanks voters 95th street CTA Red Line L platform Wedneday February 23 2011.  | John H.

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, thanks voters at 95th street CTA Red Line L platform, Wedneday, February 23, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 3, 2011 4:45AM

Rahm Emanuel’s jaw-dropping numbers in the African-American community gave him an undisputable win and raised the question: “How in the heck did he do it?”

After all, Mayor Daley got only 8 percent of the black vote when he first ran.

But last Tuesday, Emanuel racked up 59 percent of the black vote without the support of the city’s best-known black community organizers, politicians, clergy and civil rights leaders.

In an interview at his campaign headquarters on Friday, I asked the mayor-elect how he won over black Chicagoans.

“Heavy retailing,” he said. “A lot of people scoffed at what I used to call my ‘Target’ town halls. But I would go to Target down on South Cottage Grove and I would walk,” Emanuel said. “There would be eight women with carts around me, and I couldn’t get out if I wanted to.”

Emanuel went to the 95th Street L station four times while on the stump. In fact, the last stop for the Red Line was his first stop the day after his historic win. He went to 85th and the Dan Ryan three or four times. He visited the Target store on Cottage Grove twice.

The issues these voters wanted to talk about were the same as elsewhere: schools, streets, jobs and transportation.

Still, what he saw during those L stops haunts him.

“I saw too many kids on those platforms with not a thing in their eyes. That is the only thing about this job that gives me pause about my abilities,” he said.

“It is not the budget. I’ll work through that. But can you in some way touch these kids in a way that they feel they have got a shot at something? I always knew what I was running for, [but] when I saw those kids, I knew I made the right decision to run for mayor.’’

Most observers credit President Obama’s influence in the campaign for Emanuel’s huge win. After all, there was no way voters missed the political ad featuring Obama’s glowing farewell to his former chief of staff.

Although Emanuel doesn’t deny that Obama’s support was key, he had to “earn this my own way,” the mayor-elect said.

“He opened the door and laid a foundation, but I had to walk through that door. People wanted to lift the hood up, pull the sparkplugs out and kick the tires. They had to take my measure and they took it both from an initial perspective and that I was listening to them,” he said.

None of the well-known civil rights leaders or community organizers backed Emanuel’s pursuit of the mayor’s office. Those who did sign on joined late in the game. But these established black leaders proved to be irrelevant.

Early in the race, Emanuel tapped Annette Holt, the mother of Blair Holt, as a co-chairman of his campaign. Blair was a 16-year-old Percy Julian High School student when he was gunned down in 2007, while trying to protect a classmate from gunshots being fired on a CTA bus.

Holt, a captain with the Chicago Fire Department, proved to be a powerful visual for Emanuel’s plan to fight crime, and her endorsement hit black radio stations while black mayoral hopefuls were still trying to figure out the so-called black consensus candidate.

“We did not go through the normal system, the normal structures,” Emanuel told me. But he also understands why the contest strayed into racial territory.

“I understand the pride, as a Jew, I really do — the notion that we have to have one of our own. But what is missing is where politics are today. My view is that people knew that we were at a different point. They were going to look up and listen and at least give me a chance,” he said.

Emanuel’s stunning victory in the African-American community holds a lot of symbolism that has been overshadowed by the defeat of a black political icon.

It is no secret that the relationship between blacks and Jews in Chicago has been strained for decades, even though the two groups were allies during the civil rights movement. That black voters helped Emanuel make history in this city has the potential to heal old wounds.

“This is a watershed moment,” Emanuel said. “The challenge for all of us is: Are we going to allow the differences to become points of division?

“You have my commitment that I will struggle hard to not let that happen.’’

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