Kennedy name’s magic is fading among black voters

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Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers at Gallery Guichard in Chicago, Wednesday. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

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Ald. Pat Dowell smiled at my question.

Don’t older African American voters respond to America’s iconic political family?

Ald. Pat Dowell | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

Ald. Pat Dowell | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

“Kennedy is a household name,” she said. “You know, it’s like Kennedy, and Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ, right?”

Back in February, when Chris Kennedy announced his run for Illinois’ 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, I suspected he would get a big leg up with black voters. The Chicago businessman and real estate developer is the son of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and nephew of President John F. Kennedy.


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That day, I called my best political barometer. Mama, 83, is a lifelong South Sider and votes in every election.

“I’m with him!” she declared.

Why? “Well, he’s a Kennedy.”

Last week, Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers called a press conference. For months, Summers has been mulling his own bid for governor, polling, fund-raising, and stumping.

If Summers got in, he would be the only African-American candidate in the race, prognosticators buzzed, making him an instant heavy — or spoiler — in the crowded race. To win the Democratic primary and take on Gov. Bruce Rauner, the victor must carry most of the state’s black vote.

Instead, Summers, in his first elected term as treasurer, craftily morphed his own exploratory effort into a timely endorsement that will boost his political capital.

He endorsed J.B. Pritzker, the billionaire Hyatt Hotel heir and Kennedy’s chief rival.

“I met with every candidate and asked them what their commitment was to those who are most in need,” Summers declared as he brought Pritzker to the stage. “That’s who we’re supposed to work for in government, that’s who we serve. J.B. had the combination of the best vision and the greatest capability to deliver.”

Dowell, who represents Chicago’s 3rd Ward and three other black aldermen joined Summers on stage for the Pritzker endorsement: 6th Ward Alderman and Black Caucus Chairman Roderick Sawyer, Emma Mitts of the 37th Ward, and Michael Scott Jr., 24th Ward.

Pritzker is pledging to develop community based economic plans, revive the state’s Small Business Development Centers and help small businesses access capital.

Why not Kennedy? “I don’t believe that he has a true understanding of the needs of the underprivileged and communities of color in particular,” Summers said.

Illinois gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy s | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Illinois gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy s | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Dowell doubled down. “Chris Kennedy has never reached out to me,” she said as the press conference was breaking up. “He has never taken the time to come down to the 3rd Ward and walk around with me, look around with me. Talk to people in my community about what they need from him as a governor.”

Pritzker did. “I’ve had long discussions with him about small business development about economic development, job development, education, taxes,” Dowell added. “And I think that he’s the best candidate of the people that are running that can challenge Rauner.”

Kennedy responded with a written statement: “This race is not about politicians endorsing other politicians or what might be happening behind closed doors. This race is about restoring the promise of the American dream to the people of Illinois.”

Summers and Dowell say the uber-wealthy businessman made no promises of cash or other favors in exchange for their support.

But a billionaire’s money is sure to talk.

For Kennedy, there is one more ominous sign:

Are you still with Kennedy? I asked Mama last week.

“We’ll see.”

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