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Carol Moseley Braun: ‘People underestimate me’

Tommy Bennett laughs as Carol Mosely-Braun shakes hands with Lamont Robinswhile she campaigns Gay community Ann Sather Restaurant 909 W.

Tommy Bennett laughs as Carol Mosely-Braun shakes hands with Lamont Robinson while she campaigns to the Gay community at Ann Sather Restaurant 909 W. Belmont. Wednesday, January 19, 2011 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 30, 2011 4:47AM

In third grade, Carol Moseley Braun transferred to a new school where the teacher assigned her to sit in “dummy row.”

“I was furious. So, I worked hard as I could and by the end of the semester I moved up to first seat in the smart row. I guess that happens to me, people look at me and underestimate me,” Braun says in between nibbles of lobster salad. “Unfortunately, that’s my motivation in life.”

These days, things aren’t much different for the former U.S. senator and mayoral hopeful.

Many political watchers doubt her chances at replacing Mayor Daley — Chicago’s longest-serving boss.

Her impressive resume, iconic megawatt grin and charismatic enthusiasm have often been overshadowed by her reputation of being a lazy politician who makes poor choices and faces serious financial troubles.

When Braun’s critics want to get under her skin, they bring up decade-old controversies she calls “The Nasties”: investigations of her federal campaign fund and Medicare payments made to her mother, a controversial visit with a Nigerian dictator without State Department clearance, and claims her ex-fiancé sexually harassed campaign workers, among them.

Despite what Braun calls the “truth” about those scandals — the campaign fund investigation didn’t result in charges; she repaid $15,000 in Medicare payments made to her mother, and an investigation into the sexual harassment claim found nothing — there’s no denying the allegations still haunt her.

More recently, reports of Braun’s personal financial troubles have grabbed bigger headlines than her proposals to restructure public schools, redeploy police and refocus City Hall’s attention on the neighborhoods if elected.

Still, Braun abides.

“My mother used to tell me to do the best job you can wherever you’re planted. Whatever it is you’re called to do, your responsibility is to do the best you can,” she says. “That’s served me well.”

‘My duty to step forward’

Shortly after Daley announced in September that he wouldn’t seek a seventh term in office, Chicago Police detective Joe Moseley started prodding his big sister to run for mayor.

“I had some discussions with her about it, and she was not happy. And you know, she’s the oldest. The wrath of Khan is not good,” Moseley said. “But sometimes you have to step out on faith.”

So, he went behind his sister’s back and organized a meeting of everyone he knew — business folks, teachers and blue-collar types — to draft her as a candidate.

“I told them, ‘Look, here’s the time. Here’s the place. Bring the issues.’ If she can’t satisfy questions, then she shouldn’t run,” Moseley said. The only person he kept in the dark was his sister, who was shocked when she showed up.

After hours of discussion, Braun got the message.

“In no uncertain terms they said it was my duty to step forward,” Braun said.

Getting “drafted” by her friends was the easy part.

But once she announced her intentions, Braun was just one of several well-known candidates in a crowded field including two other big-name black candidates, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and state Sen. Rev. James Meeks.

When there was talk that the African-American community needed a “consensus” candidate, Braun — whose campaign hadn’t gained much traction — wasn’t it.

But after a round of talks brokered by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Meeks and Davis dropped out of the race to support Braun.

Soon after becoming the chosen one, Braun’s personal financial struggles — and her initial refusal to release her income tax reports “because I don’t want to” — made front-page news.

She has four outstanding mortgages on the Hyde Park mansion she has on the market for $1.9 million. And when she finally released her complete tax returns, they showed that in three of the last five years: 2006, 2007 and 2008, she has had a negative income and hasn’t paid federal income taxes.

Braun says her financial troubles are directly tied to her food company, Ambassador Organics, which has struggled during the recession.

“I put every penny into trying to save this little company. So far it’s been successful,” Braun said. “That doesn’t make me any different than a whole lot of Americans facing the effects of the recession.”

‘A universalist’

Braun, 63, grew up on Chicago’s South Side, the oldest daughter of a Chicago policeman and a nurse.

Her father sometimes beat her, Braun told the Washington Post during her days in the Senate, and it made her “grow up fast.”

While her parents, Joe and Edna Moseley, were at work, it was her job to take care of the house and care for her brothers and sisters.

“Everyone had chores to do and she made sure everyone did them,” Moseley says. “Trust me, she was a task master. Bossy, without a doubt.”

Her mother worked in a hospital that treated people suffering from tuberculosis, a disease that Braun contracted as a girl.

When Braun was a teenager her parents divorced. Despite turmoil at home, she remained an excellent student at Parker High School, where she was a cheerleader and captain of the girls’ basketball team.

Their family home was a melting pot. Her father was an amateur musician who played seven instruments and had a racially diverse group of friends.

“I’ve always been a ‘universalist’ if there’s such a word. I’ve lived in an integrated community,” Braun said. “It’s never been one race or the other . . . always a mix of people.”

But she was always aware — especially in school where classes were being integrated — of racial tensions. The white girl who lived next door to her would get spankings for playing with Braun, the candidate said.

“So, we would walk on different sides of the street until we were out of sight of her parents. Then we would play and hang out at school. When we walked home together, we’d split up at the corner.”

And her parents would take the kids on regular trips to relatives’ family farm in Alabama, where they faced the realities, and the absurdities, of segregation in the deep South.

“We got to Montgomery and there was a water fountain — one side said ‘white’ and the other said, ‘colored.’ My mother would not let us drink out of the colored fountain,” Braun says. “That’s when my little brother, who’s now deceased, threw himself in the middle of the floor at the train station . . . screaming, ‘I want some colored water. I want some colored water.’ He thought the water was going to be green and red and yellow.”

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Chicago at the height of the Civil Rights movement “it was natural that I would march with him,” Braun said.

When the group of marchers got to Gage Park, bricks and bottles were flying.

Braun kneeled on the ground and assumed the protest position — hands linked at the fingers covering the top of her head.

“I’m getting madder and madder. I look over and Dr. King was calm and beatific. There was no hate or anger on his face. I was like, ‘Give me a rock, I’ll throw it back.’ But there was no anger on him. I became a disciple at that point. . . . That kind of got me started on the path I’m on.”

‘An accidental pioneer’

The civil rights struggle infused Braun with an activist spirit, but birds — migratory bobolinks, actually — set her on a path to becoming a candidate.

An avid birdwatcher at the time, Braun joined a group protesting Chicago Park District plans to turn a bobolink habitat into a golf driving range.

They lost that fight, but she was introduced to former State Rep. Bob Mann, who decided to retire that term.

By then Braun had graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, gotten her law degree from the University of Chicago and worked as an assistant U.S. attorney. She married Michael Braun, a white lawyer she met in law school, and added his last name to hers. They settled in Hyde Park and had a son, Matthew Braun. Outside political circles and away from glaring TV cameras, Braun is a “proud nerd,” and devoted “Star Trek” geek, who enjoys riding horses and on occasion motorcycles.

While Braun was on maternity leave, her former neighbor, Hyde Park activist Kay Clement, encouraged her to attend slating meetings to fill Mann’s seat.

“Carol was very bright and quick on her feet,” said Clement, who has since severed political and personal ties with Braun. “I asked her if she would think of running. She agreed.”

In 1978 — the “Year of the Woman” in Springfield — Braun won a seat in the state House.

“I was an accidental pioneer,” Braun said. “I didn’t set out to be a pioneer, it just happened. I am very much a product of my time.”

‘Worst six years of my life’

Braun was a rising star in Springfield. She became Mayor Harold Washington’s floor leader and later the first woman assistant majority leader in the Republican-controlled House.

In 1986 — the same year her mother’s leg was amputated, and her brother Johnny died from drug and alcohol abuse — Braun got divorced. As a single mom, she briefly considered leaving politics for good, but found new life as part of Washington’s “Dream Ticket” in 1988, when she was elected Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

She held that county post until 1991 — the year she ran for U.S. Senate, which rocketed her into the national spotlight.

Despite being outspent 4-to-1 in a three-way Democratic primary, Braun pulled off a shocking upset of incumbent Alan Dixon and went on to win the general election.

Braun was at first the Senate’s new darling — and a symbol of hope to inner-city African American girls across the country.

Victory’s afterglow didn’t last.

That’s not to say she failed as a legislator.

As a freshman, she sat on the Senate Finance Committee and successfully pushed a bill to rebuild “crumbling schools.” She got funding for midnight basketball programs to keep at-risk youth off the street at night. She supported bills aimed at helping Midwestern farmers.

When the late Sen. Jesse Helms wanted to renew the patent on the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s flag, she made an impassioned speech that effectively killed the move and won her colleagues’ respect. But looking back, Braun recalls her days in the Senate less fondly.

“I did a lot of work while I was in the Senate,” she said. “Having said that, it was the worst six years of my life. The honor of being elected notwithstanding, I served in the Senate at a time when my colleagues included Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, Kit Bond, Conrad Burns. . . . It was a very, very hostile atmosphere.”

‘I can continue to fight’

She once said that if she lost an election she would “retire from politics, practice law and wear bright leather pants.”

But retirement never stuck, and those red leather motorcycle pants are still hanging in a closet somewhere.

Many political watchers saw her short-lived 2004 campaign for U.S. president as an attempt to recast her image and improve her reputation.

“I think she understands that her reputation took a big hit and she’s been trying to reconstruct history ever since,” independent political consultant Don Rose said. “In some ways that glorious run for president exhibited remarkable ego and a desire to restore her reputation. I think it says a lot about her ambition and ego.”

And to some extent, she’s on the ballot with hope that an underdog victory will be her redemption.

“I could either decide to cower and give up and get frightened out of it,” she said. “Or I can continue to fight.”

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