Selection process hampering black mayoral hopefuls
BY MARY MITCHELL Sun-Times Columnist
"I don't want to be the black candidate," said State Sen. James T. Meeks.
There's no question about it. State Sen. James T. Meeks is going to run for mayor of the city of Chicago.
He can't say that right now because groups of African Americans representing different elements of the black community are still trying to come up with a "consensus" candidate.
While these men and women mean well, they are nonetheless wasting time on a pursuit that will put its winner at a distinct disadvantage on two fronts:
*The "consensus candidate" will start the race behind candidates who have already declared, such as City Colleges Board Chairman Gery Chico or former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
On Friday, Emanuel officially left his position in Washington to prepare for a run. Although he hasn't yet announced, Emanuel is enjoying frenzied media coverage fueled, in part, by his ties to President Obama.
*The "consensus candidate" will immediately be tagged as the "black candidate." Frankly, that title can be the kiss of death in today's political environment.
"I don't want to be the black candidate," Meeks said in an interview. "If that group thinks I am the best person, good. But I don't want to be their candidate.
"There are only five months from the time Mayor Daley announced to election. Five months.
"The community doesn't have two years to do it the Harold Washington way. The one thing I know about a process is that it is going to take awhile."
But more to the point, Emanuel does not have to face a secret panel of Jewish leaders before making his decision.
Chico and Miguel del Valle didn't have to get the permission from has-beens before jumping into the race. And should he decide to run, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart will not have to pass a white litmus test.
Meeks also argues that time is of the essence.
"The candidate who comes out of the [African-American] process can't afford to wait until the process is over to get started," Meeks said.
"That person has to collect petitions, campaign in other communities, get office space, do all the work that a candidate does."
It's no secret that I believe politics and the pulpit do not mix. But I've got to admit, Meeks isn't pastoring my mother's old church.
The building that holds the offices of Salem Baptist Church at 109th and Cottage Grove is the only viable structure on the east side of the street. Surrounded by trees and a lush lawn, the facility could easily be in Schaumburg or Naperville.
Frankly, the operations there are similar to what you might expect to find at City Hall. Every department has a head, and every head reports to Meeks.
I also toured the House of Hope -- the 10,000-seat stadium Meeks' congregation built in the Pullman area.
While many blacks know about the House of Hope, and Meeks' role in making this facility a reality, white voters are likely not to have a clue.
Those are the voters Meeks will have to convince that he is more than a black preacher. No offense.
"I have explained to every [consensus-candidate] group that I cannot wait for them," he said. "I am going ahead and setting up everything I have to set up. I've already gotten 20,000 signed petitions. I have a petition-gathering office and a campaign structure in place. I already have a bank account opened today. I know some people who are ready to drop checks in it today.
"It is not arrogance or presumption that I will be the candidate. But the process will cripple any candidate because the process won't end until the candidate is supposed to be way down the road."
As they say: "Time is a-wasting."