The 2nd Congressional District race this spring had the regular fare of issues — gun violence, socio-economic development and the new airport at Peotone.
But one issue that made a fleeting appearance was race. Robin Kelly won the special election last Tuesday, after besting her Democratic Primary opponent, Debbie Halvorson, in February. Halvorson, however, expressed disappointed that some African-American leaders were telling people to re-elect an African-American to represent the district.
Ernest B. Fenton, a losing candidate in the February primary, said that it would be inaccurate to say that race is not a factor when it comes to voting for a candidate. But he stressed that it has more to do with racial pride than anything else.
"It becomes a better question of who I feel comfortable with, no matter what the specifics are," Fenton said.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who chairs the black caucus in the city council, mirrors that thought. If all things were equal, Brookins said people would vote for someone of their race; if things weren't equal, they'd vote for whoever they want.
Fenton argues that while it is easy to question the electorate for voting one way or the other, the truth is that African-Americans haven't been faced with better options. He said that if they were to be given an option between a non-African-American who is qualified and less qualified African-American candidate, then we will know the choices the electorate makes.
Candidates running for office tend to steer clear from race questions. Race is an issue often discussed only in private and back room meetings but not always out in the open.
But President Obama's consecutive electoral victories in 2008 and 2012 pushed the issue further in the public. Questions were raised as to whether the long history of black disenfranchisement had led to a large turnout among African-Americans, and if this was the most significant factor in '08 and '12.
A question of pride
Closer to home, the race in the 2nd Congressional District — which has one of the highest concentrations of African-American voters in the country — began as a contest between Kelly and Halvorson in the primary. Halvorson alluded to murmurs among some black community leaders who wanted to "keep the seat," implying having an African-American elected.
While Obama did win comfortably in 2008 and 2012, and Kelly winning both the special primary and election by sizable margins, the question surrounding "racial voting" persists.
"Sixty-one percent of the 2nd District is African-American and, yes, many people will vote because the candidate is black," said Dick Simpson, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
The 2nd District had about 70 percent African-Americans in 2011, according to the American Community Survey. The demography of the district has changed since then, however, with redistricting having a role. But the percentage of African-American voters still remains above two-thirds the registered electorate.
Simpson said that while racial voting exists, it is largely on the decline as the electorate finds other issues, such as gun violence, needing dealing with. The same is true of the opposite, Simpson said. White counties are less likely to vote for an African-American candidate, he notes, but this was breaking down looking at Obama's re-election.
Among the candidates initially vying for the 2nd District seat, 15 of the 16 Democratic candidates were African-American; Debbie Halvorson was the only white candidate in the race.
Brookins disagrees that the African-American vote comes down to so-called racial voting. Party affiliation remains a primary factor, the alderman said. If, for instance, voters had an option between an African-American Republican candidate and Democratic candidate, they will vote Democrat, Brookins said.
Another way to look at that is "strategic voting," Philip Beverly, an associate professor at Chicago State University, explained.
This question of racial voting, he adds, isn't put to other ethnic groups.
"The same question is not asked of Latino voters. Maybe they do vote because someone is Latino but that is not a topic of debate," Beverly said.
Many voters look at whether their interests are being met by a candidate who doesn't look like them, Beverly argues — and if the answer to that question is no, they will vote for someone who looks like them or is of the same race.
A question of representation
The 2nd District has had three African-American representatives in the last 30 years. Gus Savage had a largely uneventful tenure, while Mel Reynolds faced personal and professional problems that landed him in prison.
Jesse Jackson Jr. was noted for providing services to the district, but, according to some, there was a lot left to be desired. With the district facing serious challenges on gun and gang-related violence and a host of other socio-economic issues, expectations were high for whoever came out victorious in this latest race.
According to Simpson, Halvorson lost the primary because of her stance on guns, not her skin color. And according to Brookins, with respect to her record: "Had Debbie Halvorson maintained different positions in the past to show she worked in the interests of African-Americans, things may have been different."
Primary candidate Fenton maintains that the district's constituents are not well-informed of their choices, resulting in candidates chosen without much due diligence.
"It wasn't about the gun issue; it wasn't about issues. Unfortunately, it was about politics there and the establishment chose Robin Kelly for whatever reason," Fenton said.
LeAlan Jones, a Green Party candidate who lost in last Tuesday election, said it largely has to do with African-Americans not knowing how to use the political system to their benefit.
"There is no African-American agenda and it is a smokescreen to garner resources that their niche groups will give them," Jones said, who also blames black politicians for taking the community for granted.
Kelly defeated her Republican opponent with about 90 percent of the vote. Barack Obama got nearly 91 percent of the African-American vote in 2012. Beverly insists that being black was not the only reason for such victories — it is because those candidates represented what the African-American voter wanted more than the other candidate.