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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rauner and Blacks—More than a Marriage of Convenience?

A look at the candidate’s ties with Illinois’s black community reveals relationships that long predate his campaign.

Rauner attended service at New Beginnings Church after Pastor Corey Brooks allegedly received death threats following his endorsement of Rauner.  Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune

A Chicago Sun-Times “Early & Often” poll released yesterday caught my eye because, while it showed Pat Quinn and Bruce Rauner in a dead heat, it also showed Rauner “with strong numbers in Chicago at 20 percent, and among African Americans, with 15 percent of those statewide.” A Chicago Tribune poll from September showed Rauner with 12 percent of Chicago voters, so he’s headed in the right direction. 

In 2010, in Pat Quinn’s squeaker win—some 32,000 votes against Bill Brady—the incumbent governor won more than 90 percent of the black vote, and, analysts believe, it was that solid support that gave Quinn his unexpected win.

Assuming the polls are accurate—a big assumption, I agree—that 20 percent number bodes well for Rauner. “A Republican who gets 20 percent of the votes in Chicago is in great shape,” wrote the Reader’s Mick Dumke, in a post titled “Why the candidates for governor are suddenly interested in black voters,” published the day before the “Early & Often” poll hit.

In fact, the Reader headline has it wrong. There’s nothing “sudden” about Rauner’s attention to the city’s African Americans.

While writing a profile of Rauner, I interviewed several prominent African American Rauner supporters. I needed to understand his strategy of getting just enough of the black vote to win; his seemingly quixotic attempt to gain a foothold in a community that dependably, reflexively votes for Democrats.

Bruce Rauner, who seems to grow skinnier by the day, works as hard as any politician I’ve ever covered—and I’ve been writing about politics since Jimmy Carter was president, Richard J. Daley was mayor, and Dan Walker was governor. Since announcing in June 2013, Rauner has spent his Sundays at African American churches, barber shops, beauty salons, businesses, social events, parades, here and in similar venues in Rockford and downstate. His dedication to talking to African Americans is not the usual post-Labor Day deal.

And he targeted influential African Americans, mostly pastors and business people, years before he launched his campaign. Phyllis Lockett grew up in West Englewood, where she attended CPS’s Lindblom High. She got to know Rauner because he served on her board, New Schools for Chicago (a venture capital organization that invested in charter schools). She described Rauner as “a very active board member and I must say almost overly active, passion and generosity for education bar none…He was a change agent, rolled up his sleeves, not just sitting on the sidelines.” Lockett, now CEO of LEAP Innovations, has become a Rauner backer. “He’s the first Republican in my life I’m supporting.”

Typically, one contact led to another. Four years ago, Lockett took Rauner to meet Father Michael Pfleger. Rauner, then still GTCR chief, asked Lockett for the introduction after she mentioned that she knew the activist white priest. “Bruce wanted to meet him because he’s very interested in education and he wanted to …understand the challenges parents have in helping kids access quality education.” (The contact won’t help him this time around—Pfleger has enthusiastically endorsed Pat Quinn—but it might in the future.)

Rauner’s most active conduit to the black community has been N’DIGO publisher Hermene Hartman, a former Quinn supporter who helped Barack Obama find his footing among African Americans in his race for the U.S. Senate and is now doing the same for Rauner. (Rauner pays Hartman for her work as a “consultant and coalition builder…[to] help present him to the African-American community.”) Hartman told me that she first met Bruce and Diana Rauner last winter at a dinner hosted by another Rauner supporter, the Rev. James Meeks and Meeks’s wife. (More on Meeks below.)

Hartman has just issued her not-a-fault-to-be-found endorsement of Rauner (not yet online): “Four more years of Quinn is an unaffordable disaster… for the African-American community… his record is shameful and disrespectful… little-to-no economic development in Black communities… like war zones.”

She complains that Democrats “have their biennial epiphany about the Black vote because they need Blacks to save them at the ballot box,” but they do nothing for blacks in “the area of legislation and public policy.” She notes that blacks “give their vote away”—unlike Hispanics, Jews, Irish, women.” She describes black “voting behavior” as “elephant-like…Where are our rewards?” She also writes that as a result of her Rauner connection she has “caught hell… I have been insulted… threatened… scorned and abused… The insults made me cry.”

In a meeting in her office, Hartman told me about shepherding Rauner last Martin Luther King Day to the DuSable Museum, Sullivan High School in Rogers Park (where Karen Lewis once taught chemistry), the unveiling of a mural on a West Side site where King once lived, and then to eat Josephine’s on 79th Street.

Among the several African American pastors to whom Rauner has grown close is Rev. Meeks, a former Democratic state senator whose Salem Baptist Church on the South Side has 15,000 members—the biggest in the state, Meeks told me—and attracts 6,000-7,000 on an average Sunday. Meeks, the church’s founder and senior pastor, explains that he’s sick of the Democrats who have “totally neglected to take care of the African American base. If I vote 97 times in a row, and I vote Democrat 97 times in a row, the party doesn’t have to keep any promises.”

Rauner came to meet with Meeks at his church in 2009 because, Meeks said, “he wanted to know more about my philosophy and fight for education in Chicago.” The appointment was scheduled to last for 30 minutes; they ended up talking for two and a half hours, walking, part of that time, around Roseland.

(The next year, Meeks took his “dear friend,” CTU President Karen Lewis, to meet Rauner. She was looking for Rauner to give her money for Japanese-style teacher training; instead he offered her place on one of his “trade and tourism boards.” She declined and they ended up bitter enemies; she calling him a “menace to society” and he calling her a “corrupt union boss.”)

In 2010, Meeks traveled to Montana for a stay at Rauner’s ranch and a day of fly fishing. I asked the reverend who paid. “I paid my own way to Montana. I’ve never taken a dime for Bruce,” he answered, adding that before Rauner gave up fishing to run for governor, the two would exchange my-fish-is-bigger-than-your-fish photos.

Meeks and his wife dined at the Rauners’ penthouse on Millennium Park. The Rauners later dined at the Meeks’s house. “I just asked a few friends, so Bruce could share his vision of how and what he wanted to do as governor.” Meeks says he’s “convinced” that the Democratic party “is not trying to improve public education,” which he contrasts with Rauner, “who gave [millions] of his own money to public education—both CPS and charters.” They agreed also on vouchers “for the poorest kids.” Meeks told me he wants a governor who “puts kids first… I know the democrats don’t.”

Rauner spoke at Meeks’s church on a Sunday morning and Meeks introduced him “as a friend who’s running for governor.”

Lula Ford, a former CPS teacher, principal (of Beethoven School) and assistant superintendent, supports Rauner, she told me, because he supports education for the “underserved.” In 2013, at a private meeting, Rauner asked her if she’d be interested in serving as his Lt. Governor. ‘Thanks for asking,” she replied. “I’m not interested.”

I asked Ford if she had any “blowback” from her friends. “The slaves were freed in 1865,” she answered. “I follow my own mind.” And, yes, she is a Democrat, she says, and Rauner is the only Republican she has ever supported. (It’s important to note here that Pat Quinn, in 2013, chose not to reappoint Ford as one of four commissioners on the Illinois Commerce Commission, a position to which she was appointed in 2003 by Rod Blagojevich. The position currently pays $117,043 annually. Ford vehemently denies any connection.) Ford is also a long- time member of Diana Rauner’s Ounce of Prevention board. She was brought on the board, an unpaid position, by Diana’s predecessor.)

Willie Wilson, owner of a medical supply company and a gospel music production company —his weekly Sunday morning gospel show, Singsation! nationally syndicated, airs on WGN-TV—spends many Sunday mornings with Rauner, accompanying him as he makes the rounds of black churches “up and down the state.” The two drive in one car, Wilson says, and their drivers in another. Wilson says he’s been “pretty much a Democrat all my life”; he donated heavily to Quinn’s 2010 race. Quinn is a “personal friend” who “wasn’t happy” when Wilson, a Louisianan sharecropper’s son, the third of 11 children, told him he had switched sides.

Bob Israel, a community organizer who scours construction sites for African American workers and, when, inevitably, he doesn’t find them, agitates and demonstrates, was born, reared, and still lives in Englewood, which he describes as “like a third world country.” He showed up at a breakfast on Martin Luther King’s birthday at Captain’s Hard Time Dining, a southern and soul food restaurant on East 79th Street, his plan was to disrupt the meeting. He claims that seeing Hermene Hartman there and hearing Rauner turned him into an advocate. Rauner, he says, has so much money, he “can’t be bought,” and so could end the cycle of what Israel describes as big developers writing big checks to politicians, “buying people by the boatload, renting them really.”

At Rauner’s primary victory party last March, Israel stood next to Rauner on stage, one of just three African Americans in a group of about one hundred. When he later encountered Democratic County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, he reached out to shake her hand, she held on tightly, Wilson recalls, and said, “I heard you were at the Rauner victory party on stage. I’m very disappointed in you.”

When I interviewed Pat Quinn for the Rauner profile he scoffed at Rauner and his new black friends: “I go to a lot of churches… All year around, not just on election day.” And, as he said often during the three debates with Rauner, GTCR had no blacks, zero, among its top people. A prominent African American businessman who is supporting Quinn, remembers that 25-30 years ago he’d see Quinn “at an Urban League annual luncheon or at Rainbow Push on Saturday morning, when no one was watching. When prominent African American leaders passed away suddenly, you’d see Quinn at their funerals.” This man too mentions the lack of blacks in GTCR’s executive suite or on what its website calls its “team.”

“The real test,” he says, is “Who do you go up with in the elevator, side by side as a partner in the office.” (In a remarkably weak reply to a question about GTCR’s lack of diversity, Rauner said, “We weren’t finding the folks. They weren’t there.”)

When I was writing Rauner’s profile, his friends told me, never for attribution, that he is certainly pro-choice and probably pro same-sex marriage too. Rauner will end up losing some socially moderate voters because they remember during the primary that Rauner, appealing to the conservative base, offered that were he governor, he would have vetoed the same-sex marriage bill had it crossed his desk. But support for same-sex marriage is not necessarily a winning stand in the African American community. Both Willie Wilson and Bob Israel told me that when Rauner would make his pitch to African Americans and take questions, the questions were always about pensions and tax credits for small businesses. “The black community… does not support same-sex marriage,” Wilson told me. “I believe marriage is between a man and women. I’ll die going to grave believing that.”

James Meeks has one other bone to pick with Pat Quinn—“another snub and slap in the face to African Americans”—when Quinn made the surprise choice of Paul Vallas for lieutenant governor instead of city treasurer Stephanie Neely, an African American woman whom Quinn had interviewed and who seemed in line to get the job. (It’s a valuable gig because Quinn has publicly promised that, if he wins, this will be his last term, so his number two will be well positioned to run for the top job in 2018.) “She found out she didn’t have it when reporters called her to tell her it’s Vallas. Why enjoy… African American votes and then not reward African Americans with an African American running mate… We didn’t need another old white man running with Quinn.”

Political consultant Delmarie Cobb won’t be joining her close friend Hermene.

Delmarie Cobb told me that she fears Rauner could be “getting some legs… I met a friend on the bus and she started to talk about Rauner and how the Democrats haven’t done anything. This is somebody who is militant.” Cobb also praises Lula Ford, “out here in the movement forever, well-respected activist… [I’m] just saddened by it.” But Cobb understands: “We know we have been taken for granted and it’s partly our fault. We don’t ask for anything, don’t demand.”

Whether Rauner can win on November 4 in the wake of both Obamas, not to mention both Clintons and Joe Biden rallying the troops for Quinn, will probably be known sometime early in the morning of November 5. That it will likely be a long night is about the only prediction that’s easy to make in this loud and confusing and sometimes counter-intuitive race.

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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