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Rev. James Meeks speaks at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center during Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s press conference releasing his education reform plan in September. File Photo.| Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

‘Undecided’ gaining momentum in mayoral endorsement sweepstakes

SHARE ‘Undecided’ gaining momentum in mayoral endorsement sweepstakes
SHARE ‘Undecided’ gaining momentum in mayoral endorsement sweepstakes

As pastor of the Salem Baptist Church and chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, former state lawmaker Rev. James Meeks has a potentially powerful voice to add to the debate over who should be the next Chicago mayor.

But in what’s looking like a trend these days in the mayoral runoff between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Meeks won’t yet say how he’s leaning.

“I’m in the undecided column right now. I’m weighing everything closely,” Meeks told the Sun-Times. “I support the mayor on a lot of issues. I’ve been against him. I’m going to publicly declare in the next week or so.”

Meeks is the latest to offer equivocations on whom he will endorse in the April 7 runoff as both the Emanuel and Garcia campaigns try to claim they have momentum in the remaining four weeks.

On Tuesday, unsuccessful mayoral candidate Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) retracted his promise to endorse Garcia, saying he wanted to hear more from both candidates about how they plan to tackle the city’s finances.

And former mayoral candidate Willie Wilson has engaged in extensive public handwringing after he, too, withdrew an automatic endorsement of Garcia.

Experts say if a community leader wants to secure a promise before endorsing – now is the time to use that leverage. Some leaders are seeking relevancy, or their time in the spotlight, while many may simply fear the outcome of betting wrong.

In that sense, Emanuel’s reputation for having a vindictive streak may keep some key players from weighing in for fear of dealing with the mayor post-election.

There are obvious benefits to making a gamble.

In the gubernatorial race last year, Meeks was among the first African-American ministers to side with Republican businessman Bruce Rauner and was a steady, vocal supporter throughout the campaign. After Rauner was elected, he named Meeks to chair the State Board of Education.

Wilson told the Sun-Times that his discussions with Emanuel included asking him to remove all the red-light cameras in the city – something Garcia has promised to do.

“I told the mayor I wanted all of the red lights gone – not 50. We’re trying to get the best for the community,” Wilson said. “I pretty much know what I’m gonna do. But I can’t say. Then, I let the cat out of the bag.”

Fioretti said his hesitance now was due to his wanting to hear financial plans from both candidates.

“I’ve had very fruitful discussions with both candidates. There were certain things that were said during these meetings on how we deal with it and where we’re going,” Fioretti said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of things between our discussions that are on the table that are different in both camps. So let’s see where they go. . . . I think we’ll be able to move candidates in a certain direction,” Fioretti said, stressing his commitment to avoid a “massive” property tax hike.

Garcia is expected to release his long-awaited financial plan later this week. It’s expected to rely heavily on reining in tax-increment financing districts that now deprive Chicago Public Schools, the city and other local taxing bodies of $1.7 billion in annual revenues.

This week, Garcia notched two endorsements that his campaign hopes will help boost his numbers among African-Americans. On Monday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson backed Garcia. On Tuesday, Former state Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago), widely known as President Barack Obama’s political godfather, stepped up to give Garcia the nod.

Jones served together with Garcia in the Illinois Senate and got elected Senate president with Garcia’s support. Jones last made headlines as chairman of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority who helped engineer the political power play that former Gov. Pat Quinn used to muscle his former campaign manager into the $160,000-a-year job of executive director of the stadium authority.

“I know Chuy Garcia, a decent, humble man who believes in this city. . . . I stand with the 55 percent of the people who voted on Feb. 24 and said, `We need a new mayor,’ “ Jones told reporters at a South Side coffee shop.

“He’s right on the issues. That’s the most important thing. He tells the truth, and he’s a humble person. He’s not abrasive and he will do the job for all the citizens of this great city.”

Jones scoffed at the Emanuel campaign’s attempts to portray Garcia as indecisive, inexperienced and incapable of leading a city on the financial brink.

“I recall when Harold Washington was mayor when Chuy was standing side-by-side with him. [People said,] ‘If you elect Harold Washington, First National Bank is going to leave.’ The very next day, the bank was still there,” Jones said.

Jones was asked how he planned to “sell” Garcia to African-American voters who will likely decide the April 7 runoff.

“It’s very easy. Chuy’s been there all along. He’s not new to the African-American community. I know it personally. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me when I was running for the leadership in the Illinois Senate. So it’s easy for me to stand here and say, `I support this man,’ “ Jones said.

On Tuesday, Garcia rejected the suggestion that he promised anything in return for political backing.

“I make no quid-pro-quo commitments to anyone,” Garcia said on Tuesday. “I want to assume responsibility of the city of Chicago. That comes with a commitment to taxpayers to be ethical, to be transparent and to be straightforward.”

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