Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rev. James Meeks: the Closest Thing to a Republican in the Mayor’s Race?

When Rahm Emanuel, Carol Moseley Braun, and Danny Davis officially announced their candidacies earlier this month, there was something of letdown about it all—nothing much new in what they said or whom they introduced as members of their teams. The one surprise was Democratic state Sen. James Meeks. He was introduced by Andy McKenna, Jr., the former head of the Republican Party in Illinois and a failed candidate in…

Rev. James Meeks (left) and businessman Andy McKenna
Rev. James Meeks (left) and businessman Andy McKenna

 

When Rahm Emanuel, Carol Moseley Braun, and Danny Davis officially announced their candidacies earlier this month, there was something of letdown about it all—nothing much new in what they said or whom they introduced as members of their teams. 

The one surprise was Democratic state Sen. James Meeks. He was introduced by Andy McKenna, Jr., the former head of the Republican Party in Illinois and a failed candidate in the Republican primary for governor last February. 

I asked McKenna, who moved from Glenview to Lincoln Park six years ago, if he is switching parties. He laughed and said no. 

“So why didn’t you run for mayor?” I asked. McKenna, 53, didn’t offer an answer except to say that Meeks—pastor of the South Side’s 20,000-member Salem Baptist Church, and, like McKenna, an opponent of abortion and generally conservative on social issues—is the right guy this time around. McKenna, a businessman who runs a venture capital firm here, says he likes Meeks’ “pro-business vision” and is co-chairing the candidate’s finance committee with ComEd’s CEO Frank Clark. But what I took away from our conversation is that McKenna, a father of four, is most impressed by Meeks’ ideas on how to fix the city’s public schools—even though he himself has no personal experience with CPS as a parent. Here are highlights of our conversation:

CF: Are you going to lobby your Republican friends in the city to vote for Meeks? Are there Republicans in Chicago?
AM: There certainly are Republican votes in the city, and if one of the candidates can genuinely appeal to them, that can be an important swing group. [Meeks] has chosen to embrace a host of Republican ideas, and I want to help him bring those ideas to Republican voters.

CF: Who are some Republicans who plan to support Meeks?
AM: There’s a Republican in the state Senate who worked with him and has a high degree of respect for him and indicated to me he’s intending to help him. [I asked McKenna for that name or the names of other Republicans, who he said are in line to back Meeks, but McKenna didn’t respond by post time. Meeks’ campaign manager, Bryan Zises, told me that they’re not ready to release those names just yet.]

CF: It appears that 95 percent of the major players in Chicago business have lined up behind Rahm Emanuel. Is that an inaccurate perception?
AM: I don’t think it’s inaccurate.

CF: You’re a businessman, and you’re not getting in that line.
AM: No, I want a mayor who is prepared to do things very differently in government. I’ve seen that in Sen. Meeks, and I haven’t seen that in any of the other candidates. Leadership in government today is not about spending more money; it’s about spending the money you have more effectively. Whatever your background, if you don’t understand that, if you’re not prepared to embrace new ideas, you’re not going to be successful. Sen. Meeks was for spending more money on public schools, but that didn’t happen; the legislature didn’t pass the bill, so he then thought about what are other ways to accomplish a solution. From that, he ultimately authored the Illinois School Choice Act [which offers vouchers to children enrolled in the system’s worst grade schools; McKenna and Meeks co-wrote an op-ed on the subject.]

CF: How did you come to know Meeks?
AM: After the Illinois School Choice Act passed in the Senate last spring, I reached out to him to see if I could help him build more support. We worked closely together on it, and it gave me a chance to see his leadership style. He can work with Democrats, and he can work with Republicans.

CF: Is Meeks the first Democrat you’ve ever publicly supported?
AM: In terms of being involved in the campaign, I’d guess that’s the case. [McKenna adds that he also supported the late Bob Casey, Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, a staunch opponent of abortion.]

CF: Meeks was not the choice of the Coalition for Mayor, which set out to select a consensus African-American candidate. If there are three black candidates in the nonpartisan primary on February 22nd, how can Meeks win?
AM: I don’t think he’ll win the first round, but I expect him to be in the runoff [on April 5th] because he will build a coalition of voters across the city. I think his ideas are very attractive to many Republicans, his political style is very engaging, and he’s good at reaching out.

 

Photography: (Meeks) Chicago Tribune photo by José M. Osorio; (McKenna) Chicago Tribune photo by Chris Sweda

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