CHICAGO | Black ministers, politicians and business leaders are scrambling to unify their community behind a single candidate in Chicago’s wide-open mayoral race, which already features former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, as many as four congressmen and a sheriff among those considering a run.
So many potential candidates have surfaced - at least a dozen in the black community alone - that many fear the black vote could be widely split, ruining a chance to exercise the kind of influence that helped elect Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.
Facing the best shot in decades to push an agenda - including better solutions to violence, foreclosures and unemployment plaguing underserved black neighborhoods - black clergy, politicians and others have been meeting to try to throw their collective weight behind just one person, hoping the rest of the black community follows their lead.
“It is important to get behind one candidate … who has a sense of urban reconstruction,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of several community leaders arranging meetings.
But others put less stock in the effort. At least one candidate has expressed impatience with the notion of waiting to be anointed. And there is no guarantee that such a coalition can unite a community that is more independent than ever - or persuade other candidates to bow out after making its pick.
Many here expect the Feb. 22 vote on a successor to Mayor Richard M. Daley will function as a sort of primary. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will face each other in an April runoff.
Chicago’s black community, 35 percent of the city’s population, is increasingly diverse and not as tied to racial politics as in the past. Traditional leaders such as clergy and politicians don’t hold as much sway as they once did, said Chicago Sun-Times political columnist and DePaul University professor Laura Washington.
“There’s no one leader in the African-American community anymore … with the charisma or moral authority to stand up and say, ‘Follow me,’ and maybe that’s OK,” said Ms. Washington.
She said three or four black candidates could be on the ballot in February regardless of whom the coalition chooses.
Political consultant Delmarie Cobb said the heightened interest in running also stems from how long people have waited for the opportunity - Mr. Daley won six straight terms before announcing last month that he wouldn’t seek a seventh. The last black mayor was Eugene Sawyer, who was elected by the City Council and served a mere 17 months after Washington died in office in 1987.
“I really don’t think we will come up with a consensus candidate because egos won’t let [the others] step aside,” said Ms. Cobb, a spokeswoman for Mr. Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid.
Several groups considering whom to support plan to come together to try to pick “the best candidate to pay attention” to issues in the black community, said Alderman Walter Burnett, chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.
Those involved in the meetings say the unity candidate doesn’t necessarily have to be black, though it seems likely.
The top vote-getters in a Sept. 17 straw poll of about 100 ministers were state Sen. James Meeks, a prominent black minister, and U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, who also is black, said the Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church.