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Thursday, April 6, 2006 01:18 pm

Disenchanted

Why downstate black Democrats could embrace Meeks’ candidacy

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James T. Meeks
African-American Democrats long have had to possess a sort of double political consciousness — as party loyalists on one hand and as members of the socially oppressed black community on the other. In downstate Illinois, things are even more complicated. Scattered and fewer, blacks here depend heavily on powerful African-American Democrats from Chicago to make demands of the governor and the Legislature, hoping that some of those ducats trickle down. This is one of the reasons that state Sen. James T. Meeks created such a splash when he made it known last week that he was considering a run at the governor’s office. An unprecedented show of solidarity by black leaders from Chicago’s ever-feuding South and West sides in support of Meeks also gave hope to African-Americans in other areas of the state who’ve criticized Gov. Rod Blagojevich but haven’t gotten any of the goodies that Chicago has. “The governor has never seen fit to have a conversation with me, and we’re members of the same party,” says Carl Officer, the Democratic mayor of East St. Louis. Officer says that Blagojevich’s administration “has not reached the standard” in terms of boosting economic development in depressed areas such as East St. Louis, which is mostly black. Roy Williams, executive director of the Illinois Association of Minorities in Government, echoes Officer’s sentiments, saying that blacks downstate also feel let down. “You’d think somebody over there would be cracking a whip,” Williams says of the state Democratic Party, in light of recent grumbling by discontented black state workers in several state agencies. Already Meeks’ name has shown up on at least one statewide poll of the gubernatorial race released earlier this week — and he captured 7 percent of the vote. After Edwin Eisendrath’s weak attempt to unseat Blagojevich in the Democratic primary (the former Chicago alderman won about 30 percent of the vote), some are wondering just how far Meeks is willing to take his gubernatorial ambitions. Williams, however, sees key differences between Eisendrath and Meeks, namely religion and race. Meeks, he notes, is the pastor of a large church on Chicago’s South Side, so he’s likely more guided by faith. Also, he says, “Eisendrath didn’t have a base — blacks would be very excited to have their own candidate [in Meeks].” Donald Jackson, a Peoria resident and president of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says he’s not at liberty to discuss specific candidates. As a matter of public policy, however, Jackson is disappointed in the governor’s proposal to build special prisons for meth users, who tend to be white, while, as Jackson sees it, not showing the same level of commitment to fighting crack-cocaine addiction, which is rampant in poor African-American neighborhoods. When asked about criticism that Blagojevich hasn’t done enough to help the black community, the governor’s office typically notes the more than a dozen minorities appointed to top positions in the governor’s cabinet. Williams, whose organization advocates on behalf of minority state employees, responds by saying, “I’d take 200 regular jobs over one top job.”
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