The City Council’s Black Caucus is going to bat for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the high-stakes courtship of millionaire businessman Willie Wilson, who spent $2 million of his personal fortune to attract 25 percent of the black vote.
Wilson said Thursday he has put off until next week a decision on whether to endorse Emanuel or Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the April 7 runoff after getting an earful he didn’t expect from black aldermen who defended both red-light cameras as well as Emanuel’s decision to close a record 50 public schools.
Wilson said he requested Wednesday’s two-hour meeting to sound out the Black Caucus about the three demands that Wilson has made of the two candidates: reopen at least some of the shuttered schools; remove red-light cameras; and establish “fairness” in the awarding of city jobs and contracts.
“They felt the mayor did the right thing in closing schools. They were more or less trying to defend his justification for closing the schools as well as the red-light cameras,” Wilson said Thursday.
“The red-light cameras weren’t really about safety but money. Some said red-light cameras should be used to raise revenue. They’re trying to find a way to raise revenue. I asked, `How can you go against the community?’ ”
Several of the African-American aldermen in attendance got financial support in Round One from Chicago Forward, the $2 million super PAC created to re-elect Emanuel and strengthen the mayor’s City Council majority.
Sources said historic tension between blacks and Hispanics was not a focus of the meeting in Wilson’s downtown penthouse. But the sources said at least some of those in attendance argued that African-Americans would be better off with Emanuel than they would be with Garcia.
“The majority of [the politicians in the meeting] — 98 percent — are for Rahm. I don’t agree with the 98 percent. I don’t agree with red-light cameras and closing schools. I ran against that,” Wilson said.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the Black Caucus, said he and his colleagues told Wilson that solutions to the city’s vexing problems are “more complicated” than a simplistic, slogan-filled campaign commercial.
“It’s been a sound bite: red-light cameras, 50 school closings. But the one school that did close in my ward is literally two blocks away from three other schools in either direction, and kids were passing underserved schools to get to that school,” said Brookins, who served on the Emanuel-appointed school-closing commission that held public hearings across the city.
“We have lost 193,000 black folks. It’s not as though you did this because I’m black. You did this because of all of these factors. Loss of kids. Schools out of date. It would cost more to get them to modern standards than it would to tear them down. That story is not told. When you ask people, `Which one of those 50 schools did you want to send your kids to? Tell me the school. We’ll reopen it, then you can send your kids to that school,’ you don’t get an answer.”
Even with considerable help from the pro-Emanuel super PAC, Brookins got just 41.6 percent of the vote Feb. 24. He’s in line to get even more money from Chicago Forward for the April 7 runoff.
During the meeting with Wilson, Brookins said he and his colleagues emphasized that while Emanuel initiated speed cameras, the mayor inherited red-light cameras from former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Wilson was told the Black Caucus is “on board and supportive” of making red-light cameras more fair by installing countdown clocks and lengthening yellow lights. Wilson was further told that black aldermen might even be willing to support phasing out red-light cameras.
But Brookins said, “How do we make up that $300 million in revenue and won’t that hurt people we’re being unfair to? People who can slow down or stop will now be asked to pay higher sales, property or gas taxes or we’ll have to cut programs that help those people out. It’s fine to talk about three things with a sound bite. But when you start unpacking them, they’re a lot more complicated.”
Last week, Wilson “retracted” his election eve promise to endorse Garcia over Emanuel in the runoff and said he would consult his supporters before making a move that, he hopes, will elect the next mayor of Chicago.
On Thursday, Wilson said he has gotten feedback from literally hundreds, if not thousands, of his supporters through emails, phone calls and his extensive network of black churches.
He’s also held “three-to-five” private meetings with both Emanuel and Garcia and plans further meetings and feedback before announcing his decision by Tuesday.
“I will vote for anybody but Rahm, but the community will dictate who I’m gonna endorse,” Wilson said.
“In some areas, it’s 52-to-48 [percent for Emanuel]. In other areas, it’s the opposite. It’s a dead heat — to my surprise.”
On Thursday night, Wilson hosted a community meeting at a West Side church. The crowd voted 38-14 for Garcia, but Wilson insisted he plans to continue these meetings to make sure he’s making the right choice before announcing his endorsement.
He said he has taken a tally of votes during each community meeting, which will help him get a sense of the majority.
“The person who we endorse, who the citizens help me endorse, that will be your next mayor of the city of Chicago,” Wilson said.