CHATHAM — Well, guess who moved into the neighborhood?
Let me give you a hint: Wealthy people account for some of their biggest fans.
No, it’s not Mariano’s … or the East Bank Club.
Their favorite color is red. Sorry, I’m not talking about St. Louis Cardinal fans, either. But they are just as rare on the South Side — and West Side, too, for that matter.
It’s the Republicans — you know, the Grand Ol’ Party that hasn’t had any real juice in Chicago since, well, the 1930s.
In fact, the last Republican Chicago Mayor was William “Big Bill” Thompson, a crass, bully of a politician who infamously got elected to his second stint as mayor in 1928 with the help of Al Capone’s “Outfit,” which bombed certain polling places to keep voters away.
A lot has changed since then and Republican leaders have decided that after all that time they’re ready to take another shot at campaigning in the city.
On Thursday, the GOP celebrated the grand opening of three political outposts in mostly African-American parts of town — Ashburn, Austin and Chatham.
I called Chris Cleveland, vice chairman of the Chicago Republican Party, to ask a very sophisticated and technical political questions that went something like this, “Republicans? On the South Side?”
Cleveland told me that even though “the Obama Democrats have beaten us on the ground game and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do" the GOP needs a presence in black neighborhoods "to show that there are Republicans who are concerned about urban issues and the concerns of African-American voters in particular.”
I wondered aloud whether this was some kind of brilliant political strategy or an act of desperation. Only about 5 percent of blacks nationally identify as Republicans, according to Gallup.
Cleveland said the current political climate — a global-warming-like shift in election reality — makes a push to get city voters essential to wresting control of state government from the Democrats.
“This is huge. This is where we win or lose the governor race or the top-of-the-ticket offices,” he said.
Cleveland pointed to a well-known theory about state elections in Illinois: It takes at least 20 percent of the Chicago vote to win statewide office.
“If we can get 20 percent or raise that number to 25 percent, we can win,” he said. “Democrats have racked up enormous vote totals in Chicago in the past and we haven’t competed at all. So we think that if we compete and if we present a plan to urban voters … we can raise the number of Republican votes in the city. And with our statewide totals our candidates can win."
The Republican workers manning the new Chicago outposts will hit the phones, knock on doors and build coalitions like any other campaign office, Cleveland said.
They've already rounded up potential Republican aldermanic candidates, Cleveland said.
Does the GOP have a plan to go after the mayor's office after more than 80 years? I asked.
"Mayor Emanuel is not popular and Karen Lewis is certainly not popular with certain people. We would love to have a mayoral candidate. We would love it," Cleveland said, laughing a little. "If you know of anyone let me know."
Intrigued, I rushed over to the new 6th Ward Republican Organization headquarters to see if Republicans would receive a warm welcome at 511 W. 79th St.
When I got there, the crowded room was quiet.
A few dozen folks sat on folding chairs eating chicken wings and sucking on Oberweis “On-The-Go Ice Cream Tubes” as political operatives and campaign organizers gave impromptu speeches in an attempt to rally support.
The maker of those ice cream tubes, U.S. Senate candidate Jim Oberweis, gave his pitch for their election-day support wearing a red golf shirt stamped with the logo of the Chicago Club — a private social group that counts the city’s most prominent, wealthy businessmen and politicians among its membership.
While people at the Chatham gathering might not have much in common with Oberweis and the Chicago Club set, 6th Ward Republican Committeeman Darnell Macklin said his party’s new presence could get attention from inner-city voters who feel left behind.
“We’re a sleeping giant, us African-American folks, and we need to make a change and start looking at different candidates who are going to do something for us,” Macklin said. “And a lot of us believe in conservative values — free enterprise, less government, lower taxes and lower unemployment, concept and charter schools, traditional marriage and the right to bear arms.”
Oberweis mingled with locals on the sidewalk as the sun set on the 79th Street horizon. He said the new Republican outposts were an “incredible idea” that could be a historic moment for both his party and the people living in struggling parts of Chicago.
“The Democrats have taken people for granted for many years. Today, people realize they can vote for a Democrat or Republican if they think he offers the best solutions,” Oberweis said. “If both parties have to fight for their vote, we’re going to be a lot more concerned about how we help the people and how we consider their needs. That’s the very best thing for this community that can happen.”
And as the senate hopeful headed to his next campaign stop, Chatham resident Darrin Andrews, a Democrat, walked through the South Side Republican crowd and just couldn’t resist.
“Those guys are selling you out,” said Andrews, a United Auto Workers Union member. “Selling you out."
Andrews added that GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner "is trying to buy these people around here."
"That’s how he’s trying to buy the black vote. That’s the bottom line. Oberweis, as well," Andrews said.
We’ll have to wait and see if the Republican outposts are enough to wake an inner-city sleeping giant voting bloc for the GOP.
But after Thursday one thing was certain — the new neighbors on 79th Street certainly got people talking.
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