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Bruce Rauner’s other Chicago friends might surprise you: Brown

Updated: February 17, 2014 8:48AM

In his campaign for governor, Bruce Rauner has been telling Republican audiences he would have an edge over previous GOP nominees in capturing Chicago voters because of his many friendships here — but not the one you might be thinking.

Although often regarded as a pal of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Rauner names a pair of activist African-American ministers as examples of the alliances that would help him win a general election.

The Rev. James Meeks, a former Democratic state senator who pulled out of the 2011 mayor’s race against Emanuel, and Rev. Marshall Hatch, a lower-profile West Side minister most recently in the news for helping bring Rev. Al Sharpton to town, are actively supporting his campaign, Rauner told a Gurnee audience in November.

“They want more jobs, and they want better schools, and the Democrats aren’t delivering,” explained Rauner, who said he expects to win 25 percent of the city vote with their help, enough to keep a Republican competitive in a statewide race.

Having known Meeks and Hatch for many years, I have to say I found this news pretty surprising, seeing as how neither has ever struck me as a darling of the Republican Party, especially the conservative wing that tends to dominate primaries.

I distinctly remember the anger Meeks aroused in 2008 when he took busloads of boycotting Chicago Public School students and other supporters to New Trier High School in Rauner’s North Shore backyard to demonstrate in favor of an income tax increase for education.

But Rauner explained their alliance is not as strange as it might sound.

“[Meeks] is pro-school choice, pro-voucher, pro-charter school, pro-right to work. In a lot of ways, he’s a Republican, but he doesn’t call himself that,” Rauner gushed to the Gurnee group in a video found on YouTube.

Rauner could have added that Meeks also helped lead the campaign against gay marriage in Illinois, which didn’t go over very well with me but might have earned him some new friends on the right — although it’s not entirely consistent with Rauner’s own let’s-have-a-referendum dodge on gay marriage.

In a phone interview this week, Meeks confirmed he supports Rauner and said he will try to convince other African-American ministers to help him, too.

“I was with him since Day One,” said Meeks, who describes Rauner as a friend and fly-fishing buddy with a shared interest in education. “I think he will do good things for people.”

Meeks said he’d never heard of Rauner before Eden Martin, President of the Civic Committee, called on Rauner’s behalf about five years ago to request a meeting. So he Googled the name.

“When I saw how much money he was worth, I said, ‘Sure, let the guy come on,’” laughed Meeks.

Rauner ended up paying a three-hour visit to Salem Baptist Church, the 20,000-member megachurch Meeks built in Roseland.

That led to dinners and eventually Rauner hosting Meeks for some fly-fishing at his ranch in Montana. Now he and Rauner email back and forth with photos of fish they’ve caught, Meeks said.

But Meeks emphasized: “I have never received one dime from Bruce Rauner. Not my church. Not my school. Not me personally.”

The thought HAD occurred to me, I admitted to Meeks.

Meeks said he believes African-American voters are being taken for granted by the Democratic Party and need to demonstrate a willingness to vote for Republican candidates, too, if that’s ever going to change. Meeks said he would have supported his former Senate colleague Kirk Dillard for governor if Rauner wasn’t in the race.

But Meeks said he believes Rauner is “the African-American’s greatest hope as governor.”

Need I mention that Gov. Pat Quinn’s campaign would disagree?

In a separate interview, Hatch also described Rauner as a personal friend through their work together on a charter school board.

“I like a lot of things he’s talked about, especially education,” said Hatch, pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and former national director of religious affairs for Rainbow PUSH under the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But Hatch wouldn’t commit to supporting Rauner’s campaign.

“Who knows how this whole thing is going to shape up?” Hatch said, expressing concern about the recent flap over Rauner’s shifting comments on the minimum wage. Hatch said he personally supports raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour.

“I’m weighing all the options,” Hatch demurred, while agreeing with Meeks’ remarks about Democrats taking African-American voters for granted.

Every four years, if not every two, some Republican comes along who thinks they’re going to pry African-American voters away from the Democratic Party. It’s possible, but as always, I’ll believe it when I see it.

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