The day after U.S. Rep.Tammy Duckworth, D-Hoffman Estates, won the primary for U.S. Senate, local Democrats gathered at a “unity breakfast” at Pearl’s Place in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle attended, so did U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, and Danny Davis, D-Chicago.
But some black aldermen skipped the breakfast. They said Duckworth ignored black communities during the primary and didn’t deserve their support in the general election.
Duckworth had run against two black candidates, former Chicago Urban League president Andrea Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris. Duckworth won handily overall — but in Chicago, she garnered a higher percentage of voters in predominantly white wards.
Whoever the candidate, common wisdom — and voting patterns — still put African Americans solidly in the Democrats’ column when it comes to elections.
Outside the breakfast, demonstrators rallied against Duckworth and held signs asserting she ignored the needs of the black community. The Duckworth campaign alleges that the protest was “fake” and organized by Kirk’s campaign. A spokeswoman for Kirk’s campaign said a staffer was present at the protest because he was tracking Duckworth at events, but the campaign did not organize the protest.
Still, Ald. Roderick Sawyer, chairman of the Black Caucus, was adamant: He didn’t want a kumbaya breakfast over grits and eggs the morning after Duckworth’s victory, so he did not attend.
Sawyer, who represents the South Side’s 6th Ward, recently said a negative relationship with Duckworth has warmed over the past several months. He said he started to thaw when he saw Duckworth hiring African-American staff.
“The group that was initially boycotting her — we put that aside for the sake of the party,” Sawyer said. “And for the sake of representation, [we] decided to work with her.”
Both parties consider this seat important, as Democrats try to win the U.S. Senate and Republicans work to keep it. It’s also symbolic because it is the seat once held by President Barack Obama.
For visibility, and to show commitment, Duckworth needed a South Side field office. When Sawyer moved his office to a bigger space, Duckworth’s staff moved into his old office.
“She’s been to events in the area,” Sawyer said. “We’re part of a longer dialogue and conversation about things that are necessary for the black community to see in our senators.”
Duckworth’s staff did not make her available to WBEZ, opting instead to offer one of her advisers.
That adviser, African-American state Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, said since the botched breakfast after the primary, Duckworth has gotten the message.
“You’ve got a congresswoman who comes from the northern suburbs and doesn’t necessarily have a constituency that includes a city like Chicago who understood she had some things to learn,” Mitchell said. “She needed to make sure she was out here listening.”
Those listening posts have included stops at the 95th Street Red Line, the Bud Billiken Parade, soul food restaurants and churches.
That’s where she heard about issues such as economic development on the South and West sides and criminal justice reforms, like ending mandatory minimums.
Both Senate candidates have compelling personal stories — Duckworth is a wounded Iraq War veteran who lost both legs in service. She’s been in Congress since 2013.
Republican Mark Kirk has been Illinois’ junior senator since 2010. Before that, he was a congressman representing the 10th District in Chicago’s northern suburbs. He had a stroke in early 2012.
In this race, he too has made attempts to connect with black voters.
Kirk recently visited the corner of 75th Street and Stewart Avenue in Englewood, where a group of mothers have stood watch over two summers to stop violence.
Kirk used this setting to promote legislation to give businesses federal tax breaks if they open on vacant lots. He, too, participated in the Bud Billiken Parade and plans to visit barber shops in black neighborhoods.
He also talked about making inroads with black voters.
“You ask for the vote. From a Republican viewpoint, when we look at drugs and violence, the best thing to work with are the churches in this area, make sure the ministers who want to save the soul as well as the person,” Kirk said. “That is a very successful strategy. Democrats oftentimes want to just back a government program that has no spiritual side.”
Mark Allen, a longtime black political activist who criticizes both parties and their candidates, said campaigns like this Senate race want, and need, the black vote — but far too often take it for granted. He said neither Senate campaign has invested in black communities with full-time street operations.
“The new field operations for these campaigns, they think, is just TV and social media. Well, hell, if that’s the point, where is the black media buys, the black social media teams?” Allen said.
It isn’t just political experts who have opinions about attention to black voters. Giovanni Broughton is a Democrat and voted for Duckworth in the primary.
“I don’t feel either one (of the Senate candidates) is focused on black votes because I haven’t seen any outreach other than the commercials on television and it’s just so far in the background that I can’t tell whose ad is whose,” Broughton said. “If I look up at the television it almost looks the same.”
Veteran Al Pritchett is a Duckworth supporter because of her veteran platform.
“I haven’t noticed any real significant outreach by anybody in the community,” Pritchett said. “I’m not saying there hasn’t been any, but I haven’t seen it. Do you live in the black community?”
But in the waning days of the campaign, officials in both camps said tactics could change to more directly target the black vote.
Most recently, President Barack Obama has a radio ad endorsing Duckworth. It’s now playing on black radio stations.
Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side Bureau reporter. You can follow her at @natalieymoore.
UPDATE: This story includes an additional sentence about a protest held after the primary. The extra information: The Duckworth campaign alleges that the protest was “fake” and organized by Kirk’s campaign. A spokeswoman for Kirk’s campaign said a staffer was present at the protest because he was tracking Duckworth at events, but the campaign did not organize the protest.