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Race issues heat up special election to replace Jackson

by Laurel White
Jan 24, 2013


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Courtesy of Robin Kelly for Congress

A poll conducted by Kelly's campaign was released on Jan. 15.

Related Links

Poll: Halvorson leads, but can be beat

Candidates in the Democratic primary

Anthony Beale, Chicago alderman
John Blyth
Patrick O. Brutus
Clifford Eagleton
Ernest B. Fenton
Debbie Halvorson, former U.S. Representative
Napoleon Harris, freshman state senator
Gregory Haynes
Toi Hutchinson, state senator
Robin Kelly, former Cook County chief administrative officer
Fatimah N. Muhammed
Larry D. Pickens
Charles Rayburn
Mel Reynolds, former U.S. Representative
Jonathan Victor
Joyce W. Washington, 2004 U.S. Senate candidate
Anthony W. Williams, community activist

Candidates in the Republican primary

Lenny McAllister, political commentator and former radio show host

Paul McKinley

Beverly E. Reid

James Taylor Sr., newspaper publisher and 2012 candidate

Eric M. Wallace


We hoped that the color of a candidate’s skin was a pre-Obama cultural and political concern.

Yet as the second inauguration of the country’s first African-American president fades from our TV and computer screens, the issue of race is heating up the 2nd Congressional district special election, the race that will decide who will fill Jesse Jackson Jr.’s vacant seat.

“We’re running a comprehensive campaign, irrespective of race,” said Vlad Gutman, campaign manager for state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields).

Hutchinson is one of 17 candidates vying in the Democratic primary that will likely decide the general election result. Only one of those candidates, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson of Crete, is white.

“The special election is different because there are so many candidates,” said Philip Beverly, professor of political science at Chicago State University. “It’s really going to be a turnout election – who can turn out their base.”

Talk of turning out voter bases has brought up a key demographic issue in the 2nd district: 70 percent of the district’s voters are black, and the district has been represented by African-Americans since 1981.

So why are some pundits giving Halvorson the best odds?

They’re betting that she’ll get almost all of the white voters in the district – 30 percent of the vote, substantial in an election with such an unwieldy field – and that the 16 black candidates will split the black vote, effectively neutralizing each other’s chances of winning.

“You could say that [Halvorson] probably has a little bit of an advantage,” Beverly said.

This isn’t a new issue in Chicagoland politics, points out Dr. Stephen Maynard Caliendo, professor of political science at North Central College in Naperville and co-author of “Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Presidential Campaigns.”

The 2011 mayoral election saw Chicago’s black leaders working to consolidate their community around a consensus candidate, Carol Moseley Braun, to avoid vote splitting.

Caliendo said that it’s difficult to point a finger to raw numbers that prove that black voters line up exclusively behind black candidates (and vice versa). This is, he says, because white candidates rarely run in majority minority districts.

The quandary ties in with political science concepts called “symbolic representation” and “substantive representation.” Symbolic representation says that people are best represented by officials who share their own experiences; substantive representation is about being responsive to constituents’ needs despite personal history and/or cultural affiliations.

Like Hutchinson’s campaign, former Cook County chief administrative officer and state representative Robin Kelly’s camp is operating outside these racial boundaries – or at least claims to be.

“We have outreach to more than 10 constituencies in the district,” said Jon Blair, Kelly’s spokesman. “Robin has never confined herself to serving the needs of people in her district - or in the area that she represented.”

Two recently released polls (one conducted by the Kelly campaign, the other by Hutchinson’s) have Hutchinson polling behind Halvorson (4 points in one, 9 in the other), with Kelly in third. Other candidates, which include Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), freshman state Sen. Napoleon Harris and former Congressman Mel Reynolds, trail behind.

Debbie Halvorson’s campaign did not return calls seeking comment.