A year and a half ago, there weren't many people who knew who Patricia Van Pelt Watkins was. When she decided to get into the race to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, she was an also-ran, an afterthought.
She was running mostly to bring issues to the forefront, but she knew she didn't have much of a chance of winning. Then something serendipitous happened: She was accused of being a crack addict by former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
"After Carol did that, I knew people would know who I was," she said. "I don't think it was me running that got me there. I think it was her comment that got my name in people's mouths."
That incident catapulted her from also-ran status to a viable candidate for the 5th District state senate seat, which she wrested from incumbent Annazette Collins on Tuesday night after a long, bitter campaign. She won 54 percent to 46 percent.
"This is the dawning of a new day for people to hope and dream that things can be better than they are now," Watkins told a crowd of supporters gathered at the Billy Goat, 1535 W. Madison St. "We started this race back in September 2010 and never stopped. ... Somebody needs to carry the voice of the people back into government."
Meanwhile, Collins was a no-show at her election night headquarters. A small contingent of supporters gathered at Sawtooth restaurant, 1350 W. Randolph St. The mood was subdued as supporters watched election results trickle in on their smartphones. At 10 p.m., Collins was stuck at 46 percent of the votes cast when Van Pelt Watkins claimed victory.
Collins' husband, Keith Langston, spoke on her behalf and offered congratulations to Van Pelt Watkins.
"We would like to say congratulations to her and her camp," Langston said.
When asked if losing Secretary of State Jesse White's support contributed to the election outcome, Langston said he didn't think so. Instead Langston, blamed low-voter turnout. According to the Chicago Board of Elections, only 308,063Êregistered city voters out of 1.2 million went to the polls Tuesday.
Collins has been dogged by questions surrounding her residency - she claimed a homeowner's tax exemption for a Woodlawn condo. She also faced criticism over concerns that she allegedly awarded legislative scholarships to students outside of her district. Those concerns caused White, a longtime supporter of Collins, to back Watkins. White was instrumental in appointing Collins to replace state Sen. Rickey Hendon when he quit the 5th District post last year.
White's criticism of Collins prompted her to threaten to file a libel suit against the secretary of state. White, in a Chicago Sun Times article compared Collins' ethical lapses in judgment to that of jailed former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.