Mayoral hopeful Rep. Danny Davis warned former President Bill Clinton -- who will be campaigning for rival Rahm Emanuel -- to stay out of Chicago politics if he wants to maintain warm relations with African Americans -- and told me President Obama should remain neutral as well.
"There are lots of people who supported the Clintons here" Davis told me, referring to the former president as well as Chicago native Hillary Rodham Clinton, now the secretary of state. "I think it would be great if they both took a neutral position."
Emanuel spokesman Ben LaBolt declined to comment. Emanuel is vacationing in Thailand with his wife and three children and will be back in Chicago after New Year's Day. Clinton is expected here in January and it is likely he'll also do a fund-raiser for Emanuel.
On Tuesday morning, a statement from Davis had more strident language than when we talked. Davis said he was "seriously concerned" about Clinton campaigning for Emanuel and urged him not to be involved in the mayoral election: "The African American community has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Clintons, however it appears as though some of that relationship maybe fractured and perhaps even broken should former President Clinton come to town and participate overtly in efforts to thwart the legitimate political aspirations of Chicago's Black community," Davis said in the statement.
Davis' comments were triggered by the scoop from Politico's Mike Allen on Saturday that Clinton will be in Chicago to stump for Emanuel. Emanuel is the front-runner in the Feb. 22 mayoral primary, a nonpartisan election in which the race now is really for second place. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers face off in the April 5 general election.
Davis and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun are the leading African-American candidates for mayor and neither of them, for now, shows any intention of dropping out to consolidate the city's African-American vote. Last week, state Sen. James Meeks quit the race to boost the chance of the city electing an African-American mayor. Even if only one African American were in the contest, it could be tough to overtake Emanuel's lead: He's polling well in the African-American community.
Emanuel is the former White House chief of staff to President Obama -- the first African-American president. Obama hosted a White House ceremony marking Emanuel's departure and said he would be a great mayor. The Obama send-off event provided video footage of the two together that is very useful to Emanuel. Davis wants to discourage Obama from doing more. "I don't know if he is for Rahm," Davis said. "He hasn't said it, and I don't assume he is."
I asked Davis if he was playing a race card with his Clinton remarks, and he told me no, it had to do with his longtime relationship with Bill Clinton. "I've never been one to play the race card in my life too much," Davis said.
At the heart of this Chicago political saga are the relationships Clinton has with Emanuel, who was his 1992 presidential campaign fund-raiser and a top White House adviser; Davis, who was one of his early backers in Illinois in the crucial 1992 Democratic primary, and Braun, whom Clinton appointed as ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa after she lost her re-election bid.
Chicago has always been an important place in the Bill Clinton story, and he talked about it as recently as Oct. 26 in a sentimental speech at the Palmer House for a get-out-the vote rally for Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias and the rest of the Illinois Democratic ticket. Clinton reminded the crowd that he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination after he won the Illinois primary in 1992 -- and celebrated in the very same Palmer House ballroom. Left unsaid was that Chicago and Illinois were always very loyal and supportive of Clinton -- even at his lowest point during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment.
The crucial groundwork for that 1992 Clinton primary was laid in part on Jan. 13, 1992, when Clinton appeared at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus flanked by leaders of Chicago's warring political factions who were uniting behind his candidacy -- including Davis, then a member of the Cook County Board and, like Clinton, an Arkansas native.
Through the years, Emanuel, always a die-hard Clinton loyalist, has maintained close ties to the former president. I'm told they talk frequently, and it was in one of their conversations that Clinton offered to come to Chicago to help out in the mayoral race. Clinton stumped for Emanuel and helped him raise funds here in February 2002, when Emanuel was in a big Democratic primary battle in his first House race. A spokesman for Clinton did not respond to requests for comment about Davis' statement.