Patricia Van Pelt Watkins can laugh about it now, but you can still hear the astonishment in her voice. “I was amazed that she would say something like that,” Watkins said. She was referring, of course, to Carol Moseley Braun’s accusation Sunday night at a mayoral forum at Trinity United Church on the far South Side that Watkins was too “strung out on crack” to know about her accomplishments in the last few years.
“I’ve never used crack in my life, never even seen crack,” Watkins said, though she’s never denied that from the time she was 11 to 21 she was deeply involved with liquor, marijuana and, in the latter years, cocaine. “But I’ve been clean for 32 years,” said Watkins, who’s 53. “I think she’s out of control, that’s what’s happening. I asked for an apology, but I don’t think she’s going to apologize to me cuz she’s going around saying she’s not apologizing for telling the truth.”
The outburst occurred because Watkins had questioned Braun’s commitment to the community – a perfectly legitimate issue at a mayoral forum in which candidates position themselves against each other and in the best light. Watkins said Braun had been “missing in action and lost somewhere.” Watkins’ point was that Braun was disconnected.
And Braun, perhaps furious because Watkins – another black woman – has dared to challenge her status as the “consensus” black candidate and, in fact, beat her in fundraising since the start of the year, $500,000 to $446,000, did exactly what she’d said she wanted Chicagoans to see Rahm Emanuel do: she blew her top.
“Patricia, the reason you didn’t know who I was for the last 20 years is because you were strung out on crack,” Braun said.
Before Braun’s outburst, I’d reached out to the Watkins campaign because readers had been consistently asking that I include her in observations about the mayoral race. And I do want to give Watkins her due, as a real and legitimate candidate for mayor and not just in reaction to Braun.
Watkins has earned her stripes: She’s a high school drop out who earned a PhD, a former public housing resident who grew up to work hand in hand with the likes of former Governor Jim Edgar and current White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley on projects all over the city but particularly in the poorest and most neglected neighborhoods.
“If Carol thinks I could do all that on crack, well …” she says, then laughs again, but it’s still with a kind of amazement at what happened.
Right now, though, I just want to address this simple point to Braun: On West 95th Street, at a church renowned for its outreach to the most damaged of souls, where the drug and alcohol ministry is celebrated for its success in turning people’s lives around, calling a successful and recovered drug user a crackhead actually makes Watkins’ point.
I’ll have more of my conversation with Patricia Van Pelt Watkins Thursday.
UPDATE: Carol Moseley Braun issued an apology late this afternoon to Patricia Van Pelt Watkins. It’s reproduced below in its entirety. For me, the most significant part is what’s not in the text: After the press conference in which she issued her statement, Braun was asked if she’d called Watkins personally. Again, a perfectly reasonable question, as apologies are generally a personal matter, especially when the offense is so personal. Braun’s response? “I think my words speak for themselves.” And again I say: They certainly do.
Here’s Braun’s text:
Patricia Van Pelt Watkins said she does not expect an apology from me. She is wrong. I want to apologize to her, to the congregations and members of Trinity United Church and of New Pilgrim Missionary Baptist church and to all of the families and friends of those who are, or who have been caught up in the tragedy of drug use. I meant no disrespect of the sanctuaries in which campaign tensions spilled over, nor to the pastors of those churches, nor to the people for whom those safe havens of hope are so important. Both of those congregations were performing an important civic duty in providing their communities an opportunity to examine the candidates, and I regret any intemperance in remarks made there.
I also want to sincerely extend my support to those families who are suffering or have suffered from the trauma of drug use and abuse. I know what it is to feel powerless, and conflicted, and grief about the choices of a loved one who resorts to drug use. Just recently, a student questioned me at the WTTW forum about what could the city do about the flood of drugs in our communities, and she bravely revealed that she had a brother who was caught up in drug use.
I tried to help her understand that it was not her fault, or her parents, or her community, even, and that I hoped her brother would find another way, and restore himself to the family. I shared with her my own experience, having lost a dear brother to a drug overdose. I know the pain she must have. Illegal drug use can hit anyone – my entire family was and is in law enforcement, and yet one of us became and died a drug addict.
That is why as Mayor of Chicago, I promise to do all I can to rid our communities of the scourge of drugs, and the violence and despair they bring. You can read more about my proposal on my website.
Thank you again for your understanding, patience and continued support.
Carol Moseley Braun