Illinois Democrats' Racial Divide Claims Practical Side
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 17, 1998; Page A4
CHICAGO Illinois has elected more African Americans to statewide office than any other state. But today's primary election presents a unique and polarizing question for Democrats here: Can the party choose four black candidates to top posts in November's general election, and still win?
The subtext in the first primary election of the season has both racial and pragmatic implications. With neither party dominant in state politics, Democrats and Republicans here are locked in a tug-of-war over swing voters who can ultimately determine an election. And the stakes are particularly high in this election cycle; Democrats are trying to reclaim the governor's mansion for the first time in 22 years and hold on to their slim majority in the state legislature.
The question that has divided Democrats here is whether the party will jeopardize its chances of accomplishing those electoral goals by nominating a slate headed by four African American candidates: incumbent Carol Moseley-Braun for Senate; Roland Burris for governor; Jesse White for secretary of state and John Stroger for the powerful position of chairman of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Moseley-Braun is unopposed in the primary, and polls have shown that Burris, White and Stroger are either leading their races or are in strong contention to win.
"It's really an unprecedented situation," said David Bositis, senior researcher for the Joint Center for Political Economic Studies, a Washington-based policy center. "You have some Democrats who are concerned that if you have [four] blacks at the top of your ticket, some white voters are going to then identify the Democratic party as the black party and they're going to be scared away by that," Bositis said. "Unfortunately racial considerations do enter into it, and with a number of black candidates at the top of the slate, you can argue that it will be harder for them to win come the general election."
Race has long been an element of Illinois politics. It played a central role in the political machine of longtime Mayor Richard J. Daley (D) and the campaign of Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor. But the number of black candidates on the primary ballot has deepened tensions in the already uneasy relationship between white and black Democrats, many of whom contend that party officials have privately worked to derail black candidates.
"I think a lot of Democrats will tell you privately that their worst fear is that they will have a straight African American ticket," said John McGovern, press secretary for the Illinois Republican Party. "They want African American support when they need their vote, but when it comes to advancing their candidacies, then they're much more reluctant. It's tricky." White, and his main Democratic opponent for secretary of state, Tim McCarthy, feuded openly about McCarthy's efforts to force another white candidate off the ballot. McCarthy argued that the candidate, state Sen. Penny Stearns was unqualified, while White and his supporters said that Democratic party officials persuaded Stearns who last month died of cancer to withdraw from the race to bolster McCarthy's chances in today's primary.
Cal Sutker, Stroger's opponent for chairman of the Cook County Board, angered many blacks with campaign literature that prominently depicted the dark-skinned Stroger's face. Sutker denied the ads were meant to appeal to racial attitudes.
But it is the gubernatorial campaign that has stirred resentments the most. Black Democrats here say that the party has snubbed Burris, a former attorney general who has been elected to statewide office four times. Powerful, high-ranking Democratic party officials including House Speaker Mike Madigan and Mayor Richard M. Daley have either endorsed Burris's white opponents or made no endorsement at all.
Critics characterize Burris as classic liberal with little charisma and say he would have trouble generating enough support to win the governor's race against a strong GOP candidate. After leading the polls by a wide margin for months, Burris has plummeted in recent weeks, and a Chicago Tribune poll last week indicated the Democratic primary was a statistical dead heat between Burris, Rep. Glenn Poshard, and former Justice Department official John Schmidt. Pollsters and political analysts here say that Burris has lost ground because of a controversial reference to his opponents as "unqualified white boys" and, perhaps more importantly, his poorly-financed campaign, which has been unable to keep up with the relentless television ads from Poshard and Schmidt.
"The party has all along been against Burris, even though the man has held statewide public office for 20 years," said Robert Starks, a political scientist at Northeastern Illinois University. "The Democrats want [African Americans'] votes but when it comes to the ballot, they want to impose quotas on us."
Add Starks, who is black, "They say they're just being practical, but hell, slavery was practical."
The debate largely has taken place privately. Burris, Poshard, and Schmidt have made little reference to race, and others say that race is merely one of many issues in the campaign.
"Race is an issue for party leaders," said Burris in an interview. "But the voters aren't paying that much attention to it. They're just looking for someone who can raise the quality of life in Illinois."
"I think there are people always venturing opinions about balancing the ticket," said Poshard, an antiabortion Democrat. "But the most important decision here is who can win in November. We don't need to keep sending the same people into the [general election] so that they can be rejected by the voters. We need a more moderate candidate."
Said Bositis of the Joint Center: "This gets really complicated. The party does have to recognize that racial attitudes are part of what influences people when they pull that lever in the voting booth. On the one hand, it will probably be harder for a straight African-American ticket to win the general election. But it's far from impossible, especially in Illinois."
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