How a Past Political Star Became an Also-Ran
By DON TERRY
Published: February 26, 2011
JeNest Murry was not going to allow her teenage niece, Raven, to sit out
the mayoral election. Right after work on Tuesday, Ms. Murray drove
Raven to the polls. To stay home, Ms. Murry said, would have betrayed
the past and the future.
Jose More/Chicago News Cooperative
Chicago News Cooperative
A nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization providing local coverage of Chicago and the surrounding area for The New York Times.
José Moré/Chicago News Cooperative
So, 19-year-old Raven voted for the first time. But before entering
their South Side polling place, Ms. Murry, 45, asked her niece to cast
her ballot for Carol Moseley Braun
-- to make history by helping to elect Chicago's first black woman
mayor. A few minutes later, when the young woman emerged from the booth
proudly waving her "Thank You for Voting!" receipt, she surprised her
aunt by announcing that she had voted for Rahm Emanuel.
"That's who President Obama says to support," she said.
Mr. Obama never officially endorsed Mr. Emanuel, his former chief of
staff and now Chicago's mayor-elect. But the "perception," as United
States Representative Danny K. Davis put it, was that the president had
done just that at a White House farewell for Mr. Emanuel.
"I've never seen so many people caught up in thinking they were doing
the President of the United States a favor," said Mark Allen, a Braun
supporter and longtime political organizer in the black community. "That
kind of imagery you can't beat down."
Call it the O Factor. But Mr. Obama's tacit endorsement of Mr. Emanuel
was only one front in the storm that buried Ms. Braun. Once a national
political superstar as the first black woman elected to the United States Senate,
Ms. Braun finished in fourth place in the Chicago mayoral race with 9
percent of the vote. Her campaign was besieged by a lack of money,
internal strife, voter indifference -- more than half the city's
electorate stayed home -- and by the missteps of a candidate who clearly
had been out of politics for too long. The rust showed when she
initially refused to release her tax returns.
The shellacking of Ms. Braun has sent Chicago's black political empowerment movement reeling.
"There's going to be a lot of second-guessing after this," said Hermene
Hartman, the black publisher of N'Digo magazine, who broke ranks with a
coalition of black leaders to endorse Mr. Emanuel. "Did we pick the
right consensus candidate? I don't think so."
Even among the coalition of black business, community and religious
leaders that eventually anointed Ms. Braun after a long and messy
process, support for her was always fragile, Ms. Hartman said.
"The community was just too splintered," she said. "Everybody was
talking one thing and doing another. Everybody was with Rahm but talking
Carol. You knew damn well they weren't going to raise any money for
In the end, the chairman of the coalition, Alderman Walter Burnett, did
not even support Ms. Braun. Instead he decided not to endorse anyone
after his political mentor, the Illinois secretary of state, Jesse
White, endorsed Mr. Emanuel. Ms. Braun did not win a single black ward --
or any ward.
There were signs of trouble early when Ms. Braun's campaign hired Victor Reyes, a former top aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley,
and Mike Noonan, a former campaign operative for Illinois House Speaker
Michael Madigan. The move outraged South Side grassroots organizers.
Even with the two experienced political operatives on board, Ms. Braun's
campaign was uninspired and plagued by mis-steps. Perhaps the biggest
was her accusation that another black candidate, Patricia Van Pelt
Watkins, had used crack cocaine. Ms. Watkins said she had once had a
cocaine addiction but had been clean for 30 years.
Ms. Braun eventually apologized for the comment, but by then she had
been exposed as an out-of-touch elitist in the eyes of many black
voters, said Salim Muwakkil, an editor and writer for In These Times
magazine and a talk-show host on the radio station WVON, which caters
to a largely black audience.
"Drug problems, and overcoming them, are part of the life story of too
many black people," Mr. Muwakkil said. "That remark upset a lot of
people. The class divisions in the black community are real."
But lack of money was at the top of the list of what went wrong.
The Braun campaign could never afford a serious media blitz. Despite
promises of hefty campaign contributions, some of the city's black
business leaders kept their hands in their pockets. Among the few
exceptions were Elzie Higginbottom, a real estate developer, and John
Rogers Jr., founder of Ariel Investments, whom Ms. Braun, on election
night, called "the bravest businessman in the city of Chicago," for
supporting her and standing up to "extreme pressure."
She managed to raise roughly $550,000. Mr. Emanuel raised about $800,000
from donors with Southern Californian addresses alone and amassed a
total of nearly $12 million.
Mr. Davis, the West Side congressman and an early consensus black
candidate, received a telephone call from a group of black business
leaders on Dec. 30, the day before he announced that he was dropping out
of the mayoral race.
"They said they were going to raise $2 million and that they decided
they were going to support Carol Moseley Braun," Mr. Davis said in an
Mr. Davis said it was a courtesy call and no one ever "suggested or
implied" that he should drop out to make room for Ms. Braun. About two
weeks earlier, State Senator Rev. James Meeks also left the race. At the
news conference, both men pledged to support Ms. Braun.
In the end, the business leaders did not raise the $2 million. Asked
why, Mr. Davis chuckled and said, "Maybe it was wishful thinking on
Ms. Braun said in an interview Friday that the lack of money was key to
her loss. "We had commitments that did not materialize," she said.
Tacit and implied support for Mr. Emanuel from President Obama, former
President Clinton and Mayor Daley were also factors. "It was just an
overwhelming force," she said.
The timing of Braun's loss comes at a tough time for the black
community. Unemployment in some black neighborhoods is two or three
times the national average, Chicago and its schools remain segregated,
the percentage of city contracts awarded to black businesses hovers in
the low single digits, and tens of thousands of black families have
moved from the city.
"African-Americans in this town are in crisis in every way," said Robert
T. Starks, a professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois
University. "This community is at one of its lowest depths. Our
reputation as a vanguard political community is in danger of being
Ms. Murry, whose niece voted for Mr. Emanuel, spent election night at
Ms. Braun's headquarters at the Parkway Ballroom on the South Side. She
joined in on one last chant of "Carol, Carol, Carol" when the candidate
came out to concede defeat.
"We will continue to advocate for government that serves the needs of
all the people," Ms. Braun said in her speech. "We will continue to make
the case that the homeless and the hungry and the unemployed deserve
our attention and our support as much as LaSalle Street."
"It's a sad night," Ms. Murry said after Ms. Braun had left the stage. "I didn't think Carol's numbers would be so low."
Ms. Murry put on her coat. The party was over. The wake was just beginning.