A look at black politics in Chicago

CHICAGO --  With a cartoon on the cover and the articles inside, The Chicago Reader went there. The paper, without mincing words, examined race in Chicago politics.

There was searing analysis of the J.B. Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich 2008 wiretap. The tape forced Pritzker, a candidate for governor, into damage control mode.

"He insulted my whole community," Emil Jones, former Illinois Senate president, said.

Pritzker apologized repeatedly, but the Reader’s racially provocative cartoon sparked controversy.

Legendary publisher of N’Digo, Hermene Hartman, said the cover didn’t bother her. She saw the Reader just trying to get eyeballs.

"That’s what you’re trying to do with a cover is get attention. What you’re trying to do with a political cartoon is you’re trying be provocative," Hartman said.

But the backlash was brutal and the Reader’s executive editor Mark Konkol, who’d only be in the role for two weeks, was fired.

Buried in this episode the undeniable truth that race hovers over politics in Chicago, and the Reader wanted to talk about it.

"People for one reason or another are afraid to talk honestly and openly about race," Hartman said.

Another Democrat running for governor, Chris Kennedy, stunned many with this biting racial observation: "I believe black people are being pushed out of Chicago intentionally by a strategy that involves disinvestment in communities."

And he said Mayor Rahm Emanuel was leading the effort.

The mayor and his black political allies pushed back hard, and some columnists and editorial pages wrote Kennedy went too far. But WVON Radio host Charles Thomas heard a white politician channeling the feeling of many blacks.

"We can see businesses not locating here. We can see the out migrations everyday here on 87th Street. You see it," Thomas said. "The key is that we don’t see Rahm Emanuel doing anything to stop blacks from leaving the city by the droves. So in that respect, Kennedy is right, but to blame it all on Rahm Emanuel, that’s a stretch.

Last summer, another cartoon -- this one by the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. Outrage spread from Chicago to Springfield. Governor Bruce Rauner, even though he was not connected to the cartoon, faced questions.

When asked by Rep. La Shawn Ford if he could apologize, Rauner said: "Let me be clear, I’m not apologizing for anything that I have nothing to do with."

The racial imagery offended, but to some the cartoon’s message resonated -- a Chicago man hiding TIF funds from school children.

"I didn’t see anything racist about that cartoon. The incident or the dynamic that it represented was racism," Thomas said. "We’ve got black politicians talking about racism in cartoons, but they don’t talk about it in construction jobs downtown. Look at those buildings and see who’s working there....They aren’t talking about racism where it counts, where we as black people really care about it."

Blacks make up a large percentage of voters in Illinois Democratic primaries. The candidates desperately want their support. Thomas and Hartman say that gives Chicago’s black population enormous power. Power it should use wisely.

"The black vote is the elephant in the room," Hartman said. "So it’s like, don’t offend it, don’t mess it up, court it just right. We can put a candidate in, we can keep a candidate out."

"I’m hearing a call from people here who call WVON who are saying blacks have got to become honest brokers of their own political power and that means not always pulling that lever for the Democrat," Thomas said.

As the journalists mentioned, there’s a way you win black voters. You invoke Harold Washington and find respected black preachers and politicians to take you around. This cycle is no different.