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Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun on making history, watching it in the mayoral race

Carol Moseley Braun speaks this week at a Women's History Month event sponsored by Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. | Photo/Karen Kring

Remember the last time two African-American women vied for the 5th floor of City Hall?

It was only eight years ago — during the 2011 election won by now-outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

With the historic runoff heralding Chicago’s first African-American woman mayor winding down, I caught up with former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who came in fourth place in that 2011 election, behind two Latino men.

“A black female running the city of Chicago, in my lifetime, is a sea change. I did not think I’d ever see this,” the 71-year-old retired politician said of the election that has Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot perched on the edge of history.

“I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s terrific,” said the Hyde Park native, whose resume also includes elected offices in the Illinois Legislature and Cook County government, and serving as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand. Braun currently practices law and is a visiting professor of political science at Northwestern University.

On Sunday, she headlined a Women’s History Month event of Evanston’s Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, sitting down afterward to chat with the Chicago Sun-Times.

A trailblazer who broke multiple barriers when she was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 — serving from 1993 to 1999 — Braun reflected on a rich political career that began when, after three years as a young prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office, she decided to run for the Illinois House.

“I think our state rep had just retired, and some of my neighbors said, ‘We think you’d be good at this. Would you be interested in running?’ But others in the community said, ‘Don’t run,'” Braun recalled.

“They said, ‘You can’t possibly win. Blacks won’t vote for you because you’re not part of the Chicago machine. Whites won’t vote for you because you’re black. And nobody’s going to vote for you because you’re a woman.” That was 1978.

When she ran for state representative, people told her: “Nobody’s going to vote for you because you’re a woman,” said Carol Moseley Braun. That was 1978. Thirty years later, Chicago is about to elect its first African-American woman mayor. | Photo/Karen K
When she ran for state representative, people told her: “Nobody’s going to vote for you because you’re a woman,” said Carol Moseley Braun. That was 1978. Thirty years later, Chicago is about to elect its first African-American woman mayor. | Photo/Karen Kring

She ran and was elected a state representative, holding that position until 1988, when she was elected Cook County recorder of deeds — the first African-American to hold executive office in the county that would see Preckwinkle become the first woman County Board president in 2010. Lightfoot, an attorney, formerly headed the Chicago Police Board.

In 1991, during the controversial confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, amid allegations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, Illinois’ two-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon angered many women by supporting his appointment.

Braun was one of them. She decided Dixon had to go.

“I ran for the Senate because I thought that Clarence Thomas was not going to uphold the legacy of Thurgood Marshall, and Thurgood Marshall made my life possible. That was the reality,” said Braun about the first black Supreme Court Justice Marshall.

“My mother’s generation lived in segregation and couldn’t have lived where we lived, couldn’t have gone to school where I went to school. My entire life path was guided by … Thurgood Marshall’s influence …. So to have the president of the United States take someone who is diametrically opposed to that philosophy was just an insult,” Braun said of President George H.W. Bush nominating Thomas to replace the civil rights legend Marshall.

“I talked to our senator twice, trying to explain to him why this was a bad thing. He went ahead and voted to confirm. And so I said, ‘That’s it. I’m in,’ ” Braun, today a doting grandmother of twins, recounts.

Braun became the first female African-American to serve in the U.S. Senate; as well as the Democratic Party’s first African-American U.S. senator; the first woman ever to defeat an incumbent U.S. senator; and the first female senator from Illinois. In fact, she was the only, until Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s 2017 election.

“Women talk to each other and listen to each other. I think that’s the one thing women bring to politics,” Braun said.

“The model for men is competition: ‘I’m a winner and you’re a loser.’ Women don’t see it in that kind of dichotomy. We tend to find where we can all win, which then gives rise, I think, to a better decision-making process, as decisions come out somewhere in compromise.”

Braun served one term in the Senate, losing re-election to Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. She experienced her share of controversies during her tenure, about which she says today, “It’s called live and learn, right?”

Appointed immediately afterward to the ambassadorship by President Bill Clinton, she served there until 2001, and later ran an organic food products firm, Ambassador Organics, now folded. “After the grandbabies were born, I decided it’s time for a brand new day. They’re kind of my world right now,” she said.

One interesting aspect of watching the current political climate is that history does repeat itself. The Clarence Thomas hearings that led her into politics would today be called a #MeToo moment, and last year was labeled the “Year of the Woman,” after disenchantment with sexist rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign inspired many to run, leading to the most diverse freshman class of Congress ever.

Closer to home — in 2011, just as now — an incumbent mayor, Richard M. Daley, had decided not to seek re-election. And then, as now, the open season saw a huge number of candidates — 20 filed nominating petitions in 2011. Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, community activist and founder of the nonprofit Target Development Corp., was the other African-American woman in that race.

Braun eventually became the consensus black candidate, a dynamic eluding Chicago’s black community in this election. And speaking of the current election between two strong and well-qualified African-American women candidates, who does Braun support?

“Toni Preckwinkle,” said Braun. “I support her because I think she can do the job on Day 1. I like Lori a lot, and if it hadn’t worked out this way, I would have been happy to support Lori. I think the city would do well with either one of them. However, on the balance, Toni comes out for me as the superior candidate.”