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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

N’DIGO’s Publisher Wants to Know What Chuy and Rahm Will Do for Our Neighborhoods

Hermene Hartman has some harsh words for Wilson and Rahm, but she’s still not sure who she’s voting for in the April 7 runoff.

 Photo: Yvette Marie Dostatni/Chicago Tribune

Hermene Hartman, the publisher of N’DIGO, a newspaper aimed at “urbane” African Americans, is certainly a force in Chicago politics. She helped Obama gather the dollars he needed to run for U.S. Senator, was an adviser to Bruce Rauner last year, and she met with Rahm when he was campaigning for his first term in 2010.

But they haven’t met since, and she’s fed up. Yesterday morning, Hartman e-mailed to her 15,000-person list a tough analysis of the April 7 mayor’s race. Reading it prompted me to call her. I had to keep lowering the volume on my cell phone as we talked late Monday about Rahm, Rauner, and businessman Willie Wilson, who came in third in last week’s mayoral primary and has since become something of a power broker—both Rahm and Chuy Garcia want his voters and his endorsement.

Here’s the edited transcript of my conversation with Hartman:

Who did you vote for on February 24?

Rahm.

Did you also vote for him when he ran for his first term in 2011?

Yes. I supported him over Carol Moseley Braun and got beat up by the press. Why was I, a black woman, not supporting the black woman? I thought Rahm was the best candidate. I said Carol is not suited to be the mayor, and she wasn’t. There are people in our community who will vote for anyone who is black.

Who will you vote for on April 7?

I don’t know. I need to see from both candidates a plan for business development in the African American community.

Have you been in touch with Rahm lately?

Not since 2010 when we met at my office. I asked him, “What are you going to do for African American business?” He sat across from me and said, “I’m going to write something down and promise you that I will engage on that issue; that African Americans will participate in city contracts.” And he signed his name to the promise. It didn’t happen. African Americans get a miniscule percent of the contracts. That piece of paper is somewhere in my office. I wish I could find it.

Rahm is always talking about his work on the CTA Red Line. Those are short term jobs. Those aren’t long-term career-opportunity jobs. They don’t put 10,000 on the rolls. You need steady employment jobs, not just quick jobs.

So there’s been no communication since he got shoved into a runoff on April 7?

No. I hope to talk to Rahm and Chuy, and I want to ask both, “What’s the big-picture plan to spur business development in under-developed communities?” Rahm has certainly found the time to reach out to Willie Wilson.

Yesterday’s e-mail shows you’re not an admirer of Wilson’s. You’re extremely harsh on him. Why?

I’ve known him since Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. He’s ignorant, uneducated, not sophisticated, and foolish. Listen to one sentence and you know he doesn’t have a real PhD. For the white media to romance Willie and to portray him as a power broker is ridiculous, an insult to the black intelligentsia. Willie’s got a great pull-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps story. It’s an all-American story. Bravo for his efforts, but, come on, reality has to set in.

Willie’s a story because he exceeded expectations by coming in third.

Willie’s vote is an anti-Rahm vote; truly there’s an “anybody but Rahm” sentiment out there. But there is another sentiment: “Let’s force a runoff ,” and that’s why people voted for Willie. Wilson was the “tipping” point that snatched enough votes from Rahm to keep him from getting to fifty percent plus one vote. He exceeded expectations in the white media. In our community, it was simply, anybody but Rahm. Mickey Mouse could have run.

So you’re saying that the candidates shouldn’t be talking to Willie Wilson. Who should they talk to?

They need to go into the real black community and talk to real leaders and have honest conversations.

Who are those black leaders?

Emil Jones, Karen Lewis, Conrad Worrill, Dorothy Tillman, Jesse Jackson, Corey Brooks, Rev. Meeks. Rahm ignored them. You cannot ignore people if you’re going to represent them. Rahm needs a reality check: “Stop lying to people, playing people. You’re not the smartest guy in the room. Shut up and listen.” Rahm needed someone to say to him, “Look, man, don’t close those schools.” This is racist. Where’s the business development, Rahm? Same question for Chuy. This will be a bloodbath campaign, but one thing is certain: the black vote is going to determine who’s the next mayor of Chicago.

You have mentioned the failures of the “white media” more than once during this conversation. What do you mean?

The white media has been very kind to Willie Wilson. He’s a buffoon, spewing mumbo jumble. One of his plans for increasing revenue and bringing jobs is “I would reopen Meigs.” What’s he talking about? A one-lane airport. Or, “I’d put policemen on the bus and save on gas and mechanicals.” The white media listens as if he has said something worthwhile. [Hartman is extremely harsh on Wilson in her e-mailed analysis; so harsh I feel uncomfortable quoting it here.]

Besides job development, what was the issue that cost Rahm just enough votes to keep him from winning outright last week?

Closing schools, a meeting he had with Karen Lewis during which he cursed at her. And not just closing schools, but the way it was done. People felt the community meetings were phony, explanations and communication was not clear and effective. It was racist because almost all the school closings were in African American neighborhoods. You mean to tell me there was nothing on the North Side that needed to be closed? He killed the idea of community. Those buildings were more than schools. They were where people went to vote, went to community meetings. And now in wake of closings you have white elephants. No future plans. What’s going to happen with the empty buildings? No one [from City Hall] is asking, “What do you all think we should do with empty buildings? Lack of caring, lack of planning; it’s the same kind of insult as Willis Wagons. It’s the reason Dr. King came to Chicago.

Has Rahm done anything right?

Yes, the good news on Rahm was that he addressed food deserts. Walgreens now has food. He brought Mariano’s to 39th and King, and brought Whole Foods to Englewood. The question is, will people in Englewood be able to afford their prices? I can’t shop at Whole Foods; I go there for special items like cake, ice cream, and seafood. Whole Foods seems so incongruous to so many that there are rumors that the Englewood store will sell day-old food collected from the other stores. I have no idea if it’s true, probably not, but it shows that struggling people can’t envision shopping there.

Do you think Chuy Garcia has the aggressiveness and a loud enough voice to beat Rahm?

He ran a good campaign. He was positive. He was talking to 99 percent of the people. He’s warm and invitational. He doesn’t have the “I know it all” edge. He’s cooperative. In his victory speech he was open, inviting, he talked neighborhoods, what people wanted to hear.

How will he do in debates against Rahm?

Chuy will do fine. He was a state senator, an alderman, and is currently a commissioner. He knows local government.

Was it a mistake for Rahm to bring in President Obama in the last days before the election?

People are disappointed with the president. The last two elections in the state of Illinois, where the president came here to do rah-rah for his candidates, those candidates lost. I’m saying there’s some reality checks, you can’t piss in peoples’ faces and then say, that was just raindrops falling on your head.

The location for the Obama presidential library is supposed to be announced in late March, so shortly before the April 7 election. If it’s the University of Chicago and Washington Park, does that help Rahm?

Yes, and I’m sure they’ll play politics with it. Like they did with Pullman, which could have been announced on a nice spring day.

On the other hand, the election occurs during the week that CPS is out for spring vacation, so there will be plenty of teachers available to rally for Chuy.

Yes, and I hear that the teachers are getting together and getting ready to get out the vote for Garcia.

What about [Cook County Board president] Toni Preckwinkle? Will she issue an endorsement in the mayor’s race?

I know Toni very well. She’s part of the establishment. Will she go against Rahm? Will she go with her commissioner, with whom she has a good relationship? [Garcia is Preckwinkle’s floor leader; when I tell Hartman that Preckwinkle just announced that her position is “unchanged” from her no-endorsement position during the first round, appearing to leave open the possibility that she could endorse at some point, Hartman called it a “copout.”]

Finally, tell me about your relationship with Bruce Rauner. It was very close the last time I talked to you during the gubernatorial campaign.

Bruce is smart, very smart. The best thing about Bruce is he’s a listener. Bruce does deals. He has to listen. “Tell me about your business.” He has talked to every legislator in Springfield. But I’m disappointed that I’ve not talked to him since he became governor. It’s a damn shame. People get elected and change. We knew there would be deep cuts, he advertised that. I’m still supportive, but if he asked me, I would have told him, I understand you have to make cuts, but don’t cut any child care; that’s essential to parents going to work so they can support their families. I heard from him all the time during the campaign, but not since. 

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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