Former State Sen. James Meeks on Friday endorsed Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the April 7 runoff, arguing that Emanuel took an unfair political “beating” among black voters for closing a record 50 public schools.
“I don’t believe that the mayor intended to harm one child or one family by closing the schools. I believe that everything he did involving education he did it so that all schoolchildren in the city of Chicago would have a safe and a better school to go to,” Meeks said.
“I know that some of you are wondering about school closings and how can we support the mayor. Because we don’t believe that the mayor had in his heart an intent to harm one child. He looks at every child as if he looks at his own child. Every time a child is hurt, shot, murdered, anything happens, the mayor is there. It’s not in his heart to want to hurt children.”
Last week, mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia rolled out an African-American endorsement a day in an effort to bolster his share of a black vote that’s virtually certain to decide the runoff.
Garcia created at least the public perception of momentum by winning the high-stakes courtship of third-place finisher Willie Wilson and by accepting endorsements from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, Cook County Commissioners Richard Boykin, Robert Steele and Stanley Moore.
On Friday, Emanuel countered with his own endorsements from African-American clergy, led by Meeks, pastor of the massive Salem Baptist Church, 10909 S. Cottage Grove.
The Meeks endorsement was not a surprise, given the fact that Meeks is Gov. Bruce Rauner’s hand-picked chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education and the fact Rauner and Emanuel are longtime friends, former business associates and education reform allies.
But Meeks’ decision to endorse Emanuel is an about-face nevertheless.
Four years ago, Meeks flirted with running for mayor himself before endorsing former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun over Emanuel.
At the time, Meeks argued that Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff, had “never done anything” for African-Americans.
On Friday, Meeks was singing a different tune. He argued that, “You cannot turn a city like Chicago around in four years. It takes longer.” And he maintained that Emanuel “deserves four more years to continue his work” of solving Chicago’s financial crisis.
Meeks did not mention Garcia by name or the fact that Emanuel’s runoff challenger has been endorsed and bankrolled by the Chicago Teachers Union, whose ailing president, Karen Lewis, persuaded Garcia to take her place.
But that was clearly what he meant when he said, “Who do we want sitting at the negotiating table with the teachers when their contract comes up, with fire, with police? Who is the person who can make the tough decisions?”
Like Emanuel and Rauner, Meeks is an advocate of charter schools that Garcia wants to rein in with a moratorium.
Meeks is taking sides in the mayor’s race at a time when there’s a public rift between Emanuel and Rauner over the governor’s doomsday budget cuts and Rauner’s decision to freeze state grants for more than two dozen park projects in Chicago.
How does Meeks reconcile that?
“Bruce Rauner, when he ran for office, said over and over how he loved Chicago. So I would hope that there’s nothing that he does that hurts the city of Chicago. But it’s the job of the mayor to make sure that doesn’t happen. It’s not the job of the chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education,” Meeks said.
Emanuel basked in the glow of the endorsement from Meeks and the other pastors delivered at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in West Pullman.
“I am honored by your support. I’m humbled by it . . . While this is about the election, I want us to keep our eye on the prize, which is the day after the election and working together and building the city of Chicago where we come together and know that every child counts. Regardless of your background. Regardless of where you’re from,” he said.
Four years ago, Emanuel got 58 percent of the African-American vote and captured every black ward on the strength of President Barack Obama’s tacit endorsement.
On Feb. 24, the mayor got just 42.8 percent of a much smaller pie. An 11th-hour, in-person endorsement from Obama was not enough to get Emanuel over the finish line and avoid Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff.