May 2, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
There's a lot of chatter about who will run for Illinois governor in 2010.
The removal of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and installation of Pat Quinn has momentarily frozen potential opponents in place, but some are ramped up and ready.
Lisa Madigan, the attorney general, has a $3.6 million war chest, a massively powerful ally in the speaker of the House, her father, Mike Madigan, and a strong position in current polls.
State Sen. Bill Brady is running on the Republican side. And perhaps Rep. Mark Kirk will run if he doesn't go for U.S. Senate instead.
But there is another potential contender in the wings. One who is seriously considering running -- but not as a Democrat, not as a Republican and not in the primary: state Sen. James Meeks.
If he runs, he says, it will be as an independent in the general election. And, yes, he's keenly aware that, after the last time, some might not take him seriously.
I think he's as serious as a heart attack.
Meeks, pastor of the Salem Baptist megachurch that boasts 22,000 members and broadcasts all over the state, is hell-bent (so to speak) on one thing: decent funding for public school education, particularly in inner cities.
He's furious with the failures of both the Democratic and Republican parties to make education their No. 1 priority.
And fed up with legislative leaders who haven't put their money where their mouth is on improving public schools. That criticism, Meeks makes clear, includes fellow African American and former Senate President Emil Jones, who prided himself on support of education.
In 2006, you may remember, Blagojevich was really worried about Meeks running, fearing it would siphon away the black vote and hand the race to the Republicans. So he promised to give Meeks what he demanded: a pledge to fully fund education.
But Blago's promises were worthless. He got his re-election and Meeks got nothing except embarrassed.
But Meeks refuses to abandon this crusade. Every year for the last six, he has introduced a bill that would raise the state income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent, leavened by a property tax cut, giving $1.5 billion to schools.
While his proposal lifts the income tax higher than Quinn's current plan, Quinn's doesn't offer property tax relief. Last year, 26 senators co-sponsored Meek's measure. He believes the support is still there.
Though he gives far higher marks to the new Senate president, John Cullerton, than to his predecessor, Meeks doesn't see the collective Democratic leadership led by Michael Madigan acting with the urgency he believes is required.
A capital bill -- roads, bridges, bricks and mortar -- has more traction these days.
What's wrong with that?
Nothing, Meeks says, unless you realize that white-dominated unions, which haven't exactly embraced blacks and Hispanics, will be beneficiaries of that cash.
"I don't think blacks and Hispanics can continue to give itself wholly to this party anymore," he said last week.
Will the threat Meeks used last time work any better this time?
Could an African-American independent general election bid against white candidates do what Harold Washington did to his opponents in the 1983 mayoral race?
"There's so much working against him right now," cautioned Rich Miller, publisher of the Capitol Fax Blog, the bible of state politics and someone who takes Meeks seriously.
Miller cites the need for up to $1 billion in budget cuts even with a tax increase as the hurdle Meeks will be hard-pressed to overcome.
Meanwhile, "loser" is how Paul Green, director of Roosevelt University's Center on Politics, predicts the outcome of the kind of race Meeks is considering.
Then again, this state has precious few mavericks in a political world populated, mostly, by sheep.
Don't count Meeks out. He bears watching.