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State Democrats lose group of black ministers

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Mary Mitchell

When a group of black ministers endorses the Independent candidate for governor days before the nation's first black president comes home to stump for the Democrats, something doesn't add up.

Polls show that Gov. Quinn and senatorial hopeful Alexi Giannoulias are running a tad behind their Republican opponents Bill Brady and Mark Kirk.

On Saturday, President Obama, joined by hip-hop artist Common, will try to rev up African-American and young voters.

With the top of the Democratic ticket slipping, this is the time influential African-American religious leaders usually line up like soldiers.

But on Wednesday, 12 local pastors came together to publicly endorse Scott Lee Cohen, the Independent in the race.

Cohen surprised everyone when he won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, but was forced to drop out when embarrassing details about his personal life surfaced.

The millionaire pawnbroker has contributed $6 million of his own money to his campaign for governor.

That has fueled rumors that Cohen is buying black support.

Last week, the Rev. Gregory Lee told CBS-2 that one of Cohen's supporters told him that he would get at least $500 if he publicly backed Cohen. The video was on "Capitol Fax," a well-read political blog.

The Cohen campaign strongly denied paying for endorsements.

True or false, the charges are shameful in that they play into negative stereotypes about preachers and politics.

At the same time, this is a fascinating turn of events.

If the pastors are not being financially rewarded, their public support may represent a significant erosion of black support for the Democratic Party in Illinois.

Cohen, who is projected to rack up just 4 percent of the vote, has been able to exploit the disillusioned voter.

"A lot of these reporters are not out there with me talking to the everyday people," Cohen told me.

"People who are afraid to get in front of a camera and say they are voting for an independent are going in that voting booth and voting for Scott Lee Cohen," he said.

The Rev. C. Maxwell, pastor of Greater Deliverance Temple Church of Christ in Englewood, denied he had been promised money for his support.

"I like Cohen. He is trying to get everything back in the minority community, jobs and educational programs," Maxwell said. "He has a good scope on trying to bridge gaps. I'm endorsing him on those principles."

I'm not convinced that all of the people who are singing Cohen's praises are doing so because they find his message of job creation more believable than the promises being made by Quinn or Brady.

The Rev. Marvin Alexander, pastor of Union Missionary Baptist Church, acknowledged that some black voters are simply disillusioned with how Illinois Democrats have operated.

"Believe you me there is a lot of support for Cohen. What I am upset about is, I have been a Democrat all my life. I don't like the way they did Art Turner," he said.

Former state Sen. Art Turner ran second in the primary contest for lieutenant governor. While many black voters thought Turner should have been slated after Cohen dropped out, Quinn chose Sheila Simon as his running mate.

"Art Turner should have ran as lieutenant governor. My thing is, I heard [he wasn't slated] because the [Democratic] ticket would have been too black," said Alexander, referring to black candidates Robin Kelly, for treasurer; David Miller, comptroller and Secretary of State Jesse White. "They did not give him his due process. It was wrong.

"The only reason many of us didn't go and fight is Art Turner didn't stand up and say anything about it," the pastor said.

"What I am saying is there are people who are still upset. Why should we as African Americans run for something and win and someone else is going to be picked- " he said.

"That is why I went with Scott Lee Cohen. It was a slap in the face. I am going with the Independent. I am not going to sit back and let Quinn and the Democrats think that was all right."

The star-studded get-out-the-vote rally will give the starry-eyed something to cheer.

But a lot of voters, like those Democrats who are now supporting Cohen, no longer have stars in their eyes.