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Preckwinkle prodding blacks to vote

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Laura Washington

The top of the Illinois ticket is hot. Polls show the statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate are separated by razor-thin margins. The election is just a week away, and some Chicago political operatives are betting that the electoral destinies of Democratic Gov. Quinn and U.S. Senate contender Alexi Giannoulias hinge on turnout in Cook County -- and the African-American vote.

The number of destiny is 800,000. In political lingo, it's the "dropoff" -- the difference between the number of people who voted in the November 2008 elections and the turnout in the February 2010 primary. Eight hundred thousand fewer people showed up at the polls in 2010 -- in Cook County alone.

It's a hefty number, but it fits voter patterns. Turnout is always lower in off-year elections and primaries. And in 2008, voters turned out in droves to elect the nation's first black president.

Still, for Cook County Democrats, it's a Halloween-scary number. And it got the attention of one leading Cook County Democrat.

Toni Preckwinkle, the Democratic nominee for County Board president, is determined not to let that happen Nov. 2. She and the Service Employees International Union have teamed up for a grass-roots get-out-the-vote campaign. They are going after black voters -- and going for broke. They're hoping to shake them out of their midterm doldrums with two magic words: Barack Obama.

National polls show that black voters are the biggest supporters of the embattled president. They want to see Obama get out of the house and fight back.

Preckwinkle, a probable shoo-in in her own race, is plowing $400,000 from her campaign kitty into a tough, last-ditch assignment: motivating African American voters in an off-year election. The campaign message: "Hate vs. Hope." The strategy: Convince black voters that Obama's credibility and success depend on winning Illinois.

If voters in Obama's home state reject the top Democratic candidates, Preckwinkle told me last week, "Republicans around the country are going to use this as a bat to beat the president up with for the next two years.

"Furthermore, from my perspective," she added, "if we don't have a Democratic governor, I am not going to get any help as president of the County Board."

Preckwinkle's campaign and the SEIU are splitting the costs of what she hopes will be "a really effective ground game" to exhort black voters to turn out.

The union is matching Preckwinkle's contribution with a mix of cash and in-kind support, including a $128,000 radio ad buy.

On Election Day they will dispatch 4,000 workers -- 2,000 paid operatives and 2,000 volunteers -- to juice up turnout on Chicago's South and West sides and in the south suburbs. The effort mirrors a sweeping national Democratic push to energize black voters.

Why do the Democrats' last hopes hinge on the black vote-

For better or worse, African Americans remain staunch Obama defenders. The SEIU funded polling research showing that, given the anti-Democratic mood, other voting blocs were not "persuadable."

For instance, the research showed that Latino voters are "mad," Preckwinkle said.

"They're mad at the Democrats for not producing on immigration reform. They're not going to vote for Republicans, but they're not going to come out," she said.

In desperate times, Democrats always turn to black voters.

African Americans are suffering mightily in this jobless economy. I wouldn't count on them this time around.