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Stories behind their stories tell the tale of Braun vs. Watkins

Updated: April 30, 2011 4:46AM

Is Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins a political doppelganger for Carol Moseley Braun?

Braun, the African-American “consensus” candidate, is trumpeting feminist and progressive causes in the 2011 mayoral contest. The Braun platform might appear to be a mirror image of the agenda laid out by Watkins. Both candidates profess an outsider’s disdain for the political establishment and a hearty dose of giving “the people” a voice. It’s time to shift focus from the Millennium Parks and downtown corporate interests to the neighborhoods, these ladies argue.

Both are accomplished black women. Both argue that it’s “our” turn — time for the disenfranchised to reap economic and political rewards that other city environs take for granted.

However, the story behind their stories is quite different. And that’s where it really gets interesting.

Braun is known to take tea at the tony Four Seasons. Watkins prefers to preach in pockmarked vacant lots.

Braun is a quintessential creature of the black establishment. Her backers tout her blue-chip credentials: Her resume is loaded with “formers”: state legislator, Cook County Recorder of Deeds, U.S. senator, U.S. ambassador.

Her supporters include the black monied class: real estate developers such as Elzie Higginbottom and Leon Finney; investment guru John Rogers; Commonwealth Edison Chairman and CEO Frank Clark; former TV personality Renee Ferguson; publishing honcho Hermene Hartman. Braun also claims a hefty passel of African-American ministers and two of the city’s three black congressmen.

Watkins is grass-roots royalty. The drill-press-operator-turned-cocaine addict-turned-Pentecostal minister founded the Target Area Development Corp., an influential community-organizing and economic empowerment group based in Auburn Gresham. For years, I have watched Watkins lead Target to legislative and policy victories from the Statehouse to City Hall. She is a darling of Chicago’s civic and philanthropic worlds, and her campaign is chockfull of do-gooding community activists from across the city.

At 63, Braun’s last stint at elected office ended 13 years ago; she has long called herself a “recovering politician.” Watkins, 53, is a fresh face who scorns mainline political leaders as “misleaders.”

To secure a runoff berth in the Feb. 22 election, Braun must solidify the African-American vote on the city’s South and West sides. If she can get most black voters out for her in the six-way race, she will be a contender in round 2.

Watkins could crash Braun’s party. While the political and media establishment have pegged the political novice as an also-ran, Watkins is not cooperating. And lately she has been gaining traction. This veteran community organizer is running commercials, bogarting her way into mayoral forums and demanding — and getting — media face time. As of Dec. 31, Watkins reports raising just over $500,000 for her campaign fund. “Blue Chip” Braun had raised less — just under $446,000.

Braun has struggled to revive her message from the debacle of her personal finances. She spent last week shamelessly pandering to the black vote by beating up on Bill Clinton. She excoriated Clinton for backing mayoral front-runner Rahm Emanuel, arguing that the endorsement is a “betrayal” of African-American loyalty to the former president.

Black voters are no lemmings. Many are turned off by the race-baiting and blame-gaming. That’s an opportunity for Watkins. In the closing weeks of the campaign, progressive black and female voters may seek alternatives. Watkins won’t be elected mayor, but as a voice for the voiceless, she can make a difference. Patricia Van Pelt- Watkins or Carol Moseley Braun? They may be sisters, but there’s no kinship there.

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