October 1, 2010

Can an anti-gay black pastor become Chicago's next mayor?

With the decision by Mayor Richard M. Daley not to seek reelection in Chicago next year, the potential field of candidates who hope to replace him could make for an interesting campaign. Congressmen Danny Davis and Luis Gutierrez are testing the waters for a City Hall bid, and former Senator Carol Moseley Braun is a part of the field as well. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. is considered damaged by personal scandal and alleged ties to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And current White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is all but certain to throw his hat in the race as well.

This is the first wide open mayoral race in Chicago in years, and the best chance to elect a black mayor since Harold Washington died in 1987-- provided the black vote is not divided. The Chicago City Council's black caucus will decide on a consensus candidate, and one of the people on their short list is State Senator James Meeks.

Meeks is chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, and chair of the Illinois Senate's education committee. He also serves on the board of directors of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. And as head pastor of the 20,000 member Salem Baptist Church -- with a formidable political base, money, and an unparalleled ability to register voters in Cook County -- he is being taken seriously for the city's chief executive spot. Meeks, 54, is the favorite of the city's black ministers, according to a recent straw poll. Meanwhile, he came in second to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in a Chicago Sun-Times poll.

Meeks' career has been marked by fire, confrontation and controversy. For example, from the pulpit he once called Mayor Daley a "slave master," and referred to black ministers and elected officials as "house n-----s." Some in Chicago's political community are concerned about the use of his mega-church as a power base. Rep. Jackson, Cook County commissioner Deborah Sims, state representative David Miller, Ninth Ward Alderman Anthony Beale are all members of Meeks' church.

In addition, he has drawn attention for the alliances he has made. In 2006 Meeks ran as an independent for governor and courted the white evangelical vote. Last year Meeks joined the Republicans to support school vouchers to allow inner city public school students to attend private schools. He characterized the public schools as an "apartheid" system. The state senator has led a boycott of the Chicago public schools, a failing system with only a 55 percent high school graduation rate.

While education is his signature issue and would serve as an asset to his mayoral campaign, Meeks' stance on gay rights could jeopardize his prospects. A social conservative who opposes abortion and gay marriage, Meeks had already infuriated the gay community and civil rights groups before officially announced his candidacy.


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