Just days before the 2010 general election, then-Senator Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) introduced then-Governor Pat Quinn at a Chicago rally by calling Quinn’s Republican opponent a “racist,” among other things.
The resulting uproar was quite something to behold, but Hendon refused to apologize to Senator Bill Brady and so did Quinn. Everyone, including me, thought that Hendon may have hurt Quinn in a close campaign.
Hendon told me later he believed he had actually won that race for Quinn. Hendon said he was able to pierce the clutter of a noisy campaign and speak directly to black voters. His comments fired them up and put Quinn over the top.
Hendon says a lot of things, and it’s always difficult to nail down a single deciding factor in a super-close campaign. But there is no doubt that Hendon’s comment electrified a community that a Tribune poll had found wasn’t enthusiastic about voting for Quinn.
And that brings us to last week’s comments by Chris Kennedy. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate shocked just about everyone by claiming that a deliberate "strategic gentrification plan" exists to push black people out of Chicago and make the city “whiter.” Kennedy pointed fingers of blame at Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, to a lesser extent, Governor Bruce Rauner.
Kennedy’s remarks prompted howls of protest, with the mayor’s office comparing Kennedy’s hot rhetoric to President Trump’s. The city’s police superintendent ripped into the candidate for attempting to use the city’s violence to “score political points.” Pundits and others were quick to take Kennedy to task for having the gall to utter such remarks.
Tellingly, however, none of Kennedy’s Democratic primary opponents have so far uttered a peep. One campaign quietly pointed out that Kennedy had contributed $5,000 to Mayor Emanuel’s campaign fund and another shared some statistics on background which showed that African-American enrollment at the University of Illinois fell from 2,572 when Kennedy was appointed chairman of the board of trustees in 2009, to 2,241 when he left that post in 2015.
Their aim was to make Kennedy look like a hypocrite because attacking what he said would likely backfire with African-American voters – one of the most important constituencies in the primary. Why would it backfire? The conspiracy theory Kennedy wove has been circulating for years in the black community, and it has more than a little basis in fact.
Mayor Richard M. Daley tore down much of the city’s public-housing projects and sent many of those residents packing to the suburbs, partly by making it difficult to obtain subsidized housing vouchers in the city. A couple hundred thousand black people left Chicago from 2000-2010 and the exodus has continued since then. The population loss led to school closures, which many believe have caused even more people to leave. And, of course, the South and West Sides are enduring one of the worst violent-crime waves since the crack epidemic, which is prompting even more people to flee.
But Kennedy took it much further by pulling it all together into a grand conspiracy. He claimed Chicago is “using a strategy of selective containment, where we’re allowing violence to continue as long as it only continues in certain neighborhoods.” He even said the plot had a name, the “80-8 Rule,” which he claimed meant that “80 percent of the violence occurs in just 8 percent of our city.” That’s all by design, according to Kennedy.
Kennedy then closed the circle by claiming this is all being done to clear the way for “economic development.” Kennedy pointed to the closing of 18 public schools in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. “That neighborhood,” Kennedy said, “just south of the Loop, there along the beaches of Lake Michigan, is the next great development play in Chicago.”
The new development, Kennedy said, wouldn’t be for the benefit of Bronzeville’s mostly African-American residents who have lived there for years and are being “pushed out.” Instead, he said, the development would make way for a “new wave of gentrification.”
Again, this is nothing new. Lots of folks firmly believe this sort of thing, including black people in power.
The tale Kennedy told was undoubtedly divisive, and perhaps even hatefully so. But without much campaign cash on hand, and with his prospects dimming rapidly, Kennedy had to do something to get back in the game. This hard slap to the face of the city’s white establishment will definitely resonate with a large group of people who Kennedy desperately needs to win.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.