Saturday, January 27, 2007

Barack Obama and Charles Box

Political junkies in the Rockford area, as much as in any other locale, should recognize that Sen. Barack Obama's African-American heritage is more likely to be a boon than a bane in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

We have the example of Charles Box as guidance in this matter. Box, a black man, won three terms as mayor of Rockford in the '80s and '90s, the first two by massive landslides -- in a city where blacks made up only 15 percent of the population.

Box benefited from the same dynamic that some observers expect to help Obama in next year's presidential race.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown puts it this way: "There are more white people than ever before who would like to think they are at least fair on matters of race -- and who might be willing, even eager, to demonstrate it by voting for somebody like Obama. For them, Obama's race is a plus, not that they necessarily even think of it in those terms. I think we saw that to some extent in Obama's Senate race in Illinois. I think there was a large part of the country hoping at one point that Colin Powell would be the one who gave them the chance to prove it."

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn concurs. He writes: "Black voters will turn out in huge numbers for Obama, no doubt. But, as others have noted, many white Americans are eager to demonstrate to themselves and to the world that we are evolved enough to elect a president of African-American heritage. Their number will dwarf the number of wild-eyed racists who'll vote only for whites."

That's what happened with Charles Box in Rockford in 1989. The city had never before had even a black candidate for mayor, and at least one seasoned observer of the local political scene -- State Rep. Zeke Giorgi, the reigning Democratic poohbah of 25 years standing -- figured the electorate was not yet ready for a person of color in that post.

Said Giorgi: "You're not going to take away the built-in hang-ups that people have when they go into the polling place. If they're bigots, they're going to vote that way...I'd like to say it was possible for him (Box) to be elected, but knowing Rockford as I do, I don't think the numbers are there...(Rockford) is too racist to elect a black mayor, even if he was qualified...So help me, I've heard a lot of people bring that up."

Even after Box won the Democratic primary by a wide margin over two well-known opponents, Giorgi clung to the theory that the general election would be different.

The only thing different about it was that Box's margin of victory over Republican Len LaPasso was even wider. He carried all 14 wards and prevailed by more than 10,000 votes.

Box later said that his campaign had strategized from the outset to allay the notion that a black candidate had no chance. The method was the planting of yards signs in white neighborhoods -- 2,500 of them -- quickly creating a widespread perception of Box's candidacy as far more formidable than Giorgi had anticipated.

When white folks saw Box's campaign signs on their neighbors' lawns, they knew it was all right to jump on the bandwagon. Indeed, many of them seemed eager to demonstrate that a new day in local race relations had dawned.

We shouldn't be surprised if similar attitudes among white Americans give Barack Obama a big boost in his quest for the White House.

1 comment:

JLDoe said...

I'd like to think you're right about this, but I have my doubts. Rockford in 1989 isn't necessarily a microcosm of America in 2008.