Chicago Mayoral Candidates Work To Solidify Base

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Next month, voters in Chicago will head to the polls to elect a new mayor. It will be the first time in more than two decades that incumbent Richard M. Daley will not be on the ballot. Some Chicagoans say that makes it a golden opportunity to elect a minority.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Chicago holds a primary election next month as it moves to select a successor to the retiring mayor, Richard Daley. It's the most contentious mayoral race in decades and it opens a window on the racial and ethnic divides in one of America's largest and most vibrant cities. We begin with NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY: First a bit of Chicago history. The last time there was a really contentious race for mayor here was nearly 30 years ago, in 1983. It was a racial powder keg of an election, when Harold Washington became the city's first black mayor. He beat current mayor Richard Daley and former mayor Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary and another white opponent in the general election.

35th and King Drive on Chicago's South Side is in a historic black neighborhood called Bronzeville. Walking to his office, community activist Mark Allen says race is a constant in Chicago politics and there's nothing wrong with black Chicagoans backing an African-American for mayor.

Mr. MARK ALLEN (Activist): Like the late Mayor Washington used to say, every ethnic group whose political power rises up likes to see people come from their community. So I don't even understand why it's a big deal that the black community would decide it may be our turn again.

CORLEY: There are 10 people running for mayor. Four have citywide name recognition and moneyed campaigns - former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, who is white, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who is black, and two Latinos, city clerk Miguel del Valle and Gery Chico, the former head of the Chicago school board.

Waiting for a bus at 35th Street, Muriel Stacker and Maurice Jones had different opinions about the mayoral race.

Ms. MURIEL STACKER: Whoever is going to really help people, that's who I'm for, and I don't know who that is at this moment.

Mr. MAURICE JONES: It's time for a chance to get a black lady to be the next mayor of the city of Chicago.

CORLEY: Using the 1983 election roadmap, African-American activists held meetings, pressing to find a consensus candidate in hopes of unifying the black vote. Carol Moseley Braun emerged as a choice. Two other leading black contenders, a congressman and a state legislator, dropped out of the race and offered her their support. Harold Lucas heads Chicago's Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council. He says those three would have split the black vote.

Mr. HAROLD LUCAS (Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council): So if there was any shot of quote-unquote, a black mayor, they had enough sense to close ranks among the status quo African-American leadership to come up with a consensus candidate. That's good.

In Chicago, about five percent of the population is Asian. There's a near equal proportion of blacks, whites and Latinos.

Mr. OMAR LOPEZ (Chicago Latino Coalition 2011): Five years ago, people were saying that the next mayor was going to be a Hispanic.

CORLEY: Omar Lopez, the convener of the Chicago Latino Coalition 2011, says Mayor Daley's retirement announcement came much earlier than expected.

Mr. LOPEZ: And so at the time, you know, we never said we were going with a Latino, African-American or white. We said we want to look at them. We want to see who ends up in the ballot and find out which one would be the best mayor for all of Chicago.

CORLEY: Even so, Lopez admits that many in Chicago's Mexican community back Gery Chico, while Puerto Ricans, Miguel del Valle.

At Lazos Tacos, a 24-hour restaurant in Chicago's diverse Humboldt Park neighborhood, white patron Chris Hahn says race won't be a factor in his choice for mayor.

Mr. CHRIS HAHN: I'd rather have a candidate, instead of like someone who says, oh, I'm the candidate for this race. Because then, well, what about everybody else? No matter which race they're for, a third or two-thirds of the rest of the city isn't that race.

CORLEY: And that's why the political maxim here is solidify your base but work towards a coalition rather than any racial divide. It's a message all the candidates will heed as they try to capture Chicago's open mayoral seat.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.�

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