I'm not sure how long it will last, but black voters in Cook County are united and fired up right now like they haven't been in a long time.
It goes back to Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic primary victory, but it flamed back up in January, when Chicago's historic Pilgrim Baptist Church burned down. Black people from all over the city and county gathered in huge numbers to grieve with the parishioners and pledge their support. Governor Rod Blagojevich stepped up with a million dollars in rebuilding money and was roundly cheered.
The recent conflagration over the governor's hate crimes commission sparked a hue and cry among the black community, many of whose members perceived the attacks on a Louis Farrakhan adviser appointed to the committee as an attack on black people in general. Black talk radio was flooded for days with defiant, angry calls and Gov. Blagojevich's stock went up again when he refused to remove the controversial commissioner, even at the expense of disgruntlement within the Jewish community.
And then Cook County Board President John Stroger, an African-American, had a stroke and everything seemed to fall into place. Shock was followed by grief, followed by red-hot anger when Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg implied that Stroger was faking his stroke to score sympathy votes. Once again, the control boards at black radio stations were flooded with angry phone calls.
The result was that John Stroger won last Tuesday's primary against reformer Forrest Claypool. Stroger was literally carried across the finish line by big numbers in predominantly black wards. The win was also a victory for Gov. Blagojevich, who wanted Stroger on the ballot for the fall campaign to help increase black turnout, which for obvious reasons he deems crucial to his re-election.
But state Sen. James Meeks may have other ideas. Meeks (D-Chicago) reminded reporters last week that he may still be a factor in the fall festivities. "On March 28, I can start putting petitions on the street" for a third-party gubernatorial bid, Meeks told the Sun-Times. "And, so far, I've had nothing to deter me from putting petitions on the street on March 28." Meeks said the governor has never called black leaders together and asked them what they want. If Blagojevich doesn't do that very soon, Meeks said, he'll run.
History never exactly repeats itself, but events are starting to remind me of 1982, when the Democratic Party machine registered huge numbers of African-Americans to vote and then cranked up the returns for Adlai Stevenson's gubernatorial bid with a massive "Punch 10" straight-voting campaign. That effort led directly to Harold Washington's stunning Chicago mayoral victory the following spring.
I'm not saying that James Meeks will turn out to be another Harold Washington, or even that he'll run. A statewide campaign is a lot different than a Chicago race.
But what I have been saying for at least two years now is something that's become so obvious perhaps the media at large will finally catch on: Black political influence is way on the rise in Cook County and in Illinois.
Gov. Blagojevich has been smart to try to encourage and tap into this phenomenon, but if Meeks defies conventional wisdom and runs, the governor, like Eddie Vrdolyak's machine before him, will have helped manufacture his own political demise.
Even if Meeks doesn't run, Mayor Daley and the white-dominated party machine need to watch their backs in a major way. If Daley, like Blagojevich, thinks that supporting John Stroger will inoculate himself against an assault from a credible African-American opponent like Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., he's wrong.
Forrest Claypool probably endorsed more black candidates for higher office than John Stroger, and look where that got him. And even though Jackson favored Claypool, that probably won't hurt him in a mayoral bid. After all, John Stroger endorsed Dan Hynes against Barack Obama and backed Rich Daley against Harold Washington.
Frankly, I'm not exactly sure where all of this is heading. It may end up being a movement without specific direction. Tuesday's election split the black vote and the white liberal vote, which was so important to Harold Washington's two campaigns. But, alliances can change on a dime in Chicago politics. What this election showed is that a strong black politician who teams up with a formidable voting bloc (in this case, the regular machine) can win almost no matter what. Make no mistake, this is a real movement.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com