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A few Democrats break ranks at Duckworth breakfast

A dozen people demonstrated outside U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth's unity breakfast in Bronzeville on Monday. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

There were some empty seats at Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth’s “unity breakfast” with African-American political leaders Monday, but those who did attend said the suburban congresswoman’s support in Chicago will grow as the November election draws closer.

Duckworth won a three-way primary by a resounding margin in the city and statewide, but a faction of black Chicago political veterans led by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) last week announced a boycott of Duckworth’s breakfast at Pearl’s Place in Bronzeville. Duckworth, who was the front-runner from the early days of primary season, spent little time campaigning in the city, where she tallied nearly 60 percent of the vote against two African-American opponents.

Now that Duckworth has cleared a path to face Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in November, black Democrats who skipped breakfast at Pearl’s will come around, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis said as he left the restaurant.

“I know Tammy Duckworth. I was in the Congress with her. … She is going to foster the same kind of agenda in the Senate that I would,” said Davis, who had backed Andrea Zopp in the primary.

After a brief session for the media, the restaurant was closed to the public for Duckworth’s two-hour meeting with the black leaders. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle addressed the group. U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly and Bobby Rush attended along with an assortment of African-American community leaders, a Duckworth aide said, adding Duckworth had also reconciled with primary opponents Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris.

Duckworth’s race against Kirk is likely to be one of the most expensive and hardest fought of any seat in the Senate, and like all Democrats running for statewide office in Illinois, Duckworth will need strong support from black voters in the city.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul did not show in Bronzeville, and said he intends to withhold his support for Duckworth until she demonstrates more willingness to address would-be constituents of all races.

“We know the (general) election is going to be close, and candidates will come see (black communities) when it’s urgent and they’re depending on us,” Raoul said, noting that he had talked with Duckworth after announcing his plans to boycott her breakfast meeting.

“As a candidate, she should go everywhere and show people she intends to represent all of her constituents. … I want to hear that she has at least thought about the black community, the disinvestment, the crime and education issues that we face.”

A dozen protesters, all African-Americans, lined the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, holding signs and chanting. But they wouldn’t answer questions about the protest or say which organization they represented. Most held hand-lettered signs that bore one of three messages: “What’s Our Vote Worth Duckworth?”, “Picked by Washington In$iders” or “D.C. Hatched a Plan,” showing a duckling emerging from an egg.

Kirk campaign staffer Matt Custardo mingled with the protesters outside the restaurant. The Kirk campaign said he was on hand to tape the event, but he appeared to be helping pass out coffee and doughnuts to the demonstrators. And whether they liked Duckworth or not, the protesters were happy to accept breakfast from the candidate, munching on bacon and eggs Duckworth staffers brought out of Pearl’s in foam boxes after the meeting adjourned.

Jeffrey Coleman was one of the few people standing among the protesters who was willing to talk with a reporter, though he admitted he had worked for Kirk’s campaign. Coleman, who is black, said African-American voters should not vote reflexively for Democrats.

“Tammy Duckworth was forced down our throats,” he said. “African-Americans in Chicago should consider their options. Democrats have had a stranglehold on us for too long.”