July 18, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
"I'm in," declared West Side Congressman Danny Davis by phone from Washington on Friday morning.
Davis had worked late the night before on President Obama's health-care bill, which passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee just before midnight. But as much as Davis loves policy work, as important as his seat on the Ways and Means committee is to Illinois, after six terms he's coming home.
"I'm in" means he's leaving Congress to run for president of the Cook County Board in 2010, a position now occupied by the embattled Todd Stroger, who says he's running too.
The field of challengers is growing -- for Stroger's job and for Davis' congressional seat.
The political risk is that each office, long held by an African American, is vulnerable to a white or Hispanic challenger.
Call it the Reverse Harold Washington Effect.
In 1983, when Washington won his historic primary bid for Chicago mayor, opponents Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley split the white vote. Washington, with near-total black support plus some lakefront liberals, beat them.
Could the opposite happen?
"I have some concerns," Davis admitted.
Though County Commissioner Forrest Claypool has withdrawn from the Democratic side of the race, and former Chicago Public School CEO Paul Vallas from the Republican primary, other potential white contenders remain. They include Metropolitan Water Reclamation President Terrence O'Brien, who says he'll make a decision soon. And Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who says, "I'm leaning toward it."
Suffredin, an independent who has at times sided with Stroger, most notably on his vastly unpopular sales tax increase, argues the downside of running is that he's "not anxious to be in the middle of a race war."
Haven't we moved past the politics of race?
In some ways, Davis says yes. Just this week, he says he witnessed the swearing-in of an Asian American from California to represent a largely Hispanic district. Then again, he's meeting with Chicago Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, an African American from the South Side, to talk about the need for a united front.
Preckwinkle many months ago announced her campaign for the board presidency and shows no signs of backing out in favor of Davis or anyone else.
But Davis argues: "There can't be six candidates. . . . There will have to be some negotiation and some unity" before the 2010 Demo- cratic primary.
And at the moment, counting Davis, Stroger, Preckwinkle, Cook County Clerk of the Courts Dorothy Brown, Suffredin, and O'Brien, there are potentially at least six on the Democratic side.
Then there's the race for Davis' 7th Congressional District seat. And race is a factor there too.
Potential black candidates include state Representatives Karen Yarbrough and LaShawn Ford; state Sen. Rickey Hendon and Deputy Recorder of Deeds Darlena Williams-Burnett.
Potential white candidates being mentioned are 2nd Ward Ald. Bob Fioretti and state Sen. Don Harmon. Harmon, for one, says he's not running, arguing, "We should not be trying to erode the representation of the African-American community."
Still the demographics of the 7th Congressional District, which includes Lincoln Park and Lawndale, have changed since the last census. Today it is less African American, more Hispanic, and in certain areas, more gentrified and affluent.
In an off-year election, with a gaggle of candidates dividing the vote, the outcome is up for grabs.
Hendon argues there's no reason for concern: "Barack Obama proved color didn't matter . . . we've moved beyond that."
Davis demurs. "I'm not as cocky as Rickey. . . . There is always that kind of danger, that kind of possibility."
Illinois, the only state to have sent two African Americans to the U.S. Senate and one to the White House, is still going to grapple with race in its politics.