CHICAGO – Congressman Danny Davis has a message for former President Bill Clinton: Don't take sides in the Chicago mayor's race — or else.
Davis, a longtime friend of Clinton, warned the ex-president on Tuesday that he could jeopardize his "long and fruitful relationship" with the black community if he campaigns for former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel instead of one of the two leading black candidates running — Davis or former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.
The warning highlights the stakes in what is gearing up to be a contentious race for mayor in the nation's third-largest city. About a dozen people have made it on to the ballot to replace retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is bowing out after more than 20 years in office, giving candidates their first real shot at Chicago's top job for the first time in two decades.
In a news release, Davis, a Democrat from Chicago's West Side, said Clinton's relationship with the black community may be "fractured and perhaps even broken" if he comes to town to stump for Emanuel, who moved back to Chicago this fall to run for mayor and is leading in the polls.
Davis later told The Associated Press that he intended the news release to be a personal appeal to Clinton, friend to friend.
"You just wouldn't want your friends to be campaigning against you," Davis said with a laugh. "I've enjoyed a great friendship and relationship and have a tremendous amount of affinity for both the Clintons ... and I'd like to keep it that way."
"I want him to be neutral," Davis said of the former president.
Emanuel's campaign recently announced that Clinton was going to head a campaign event in January, but no date or time has been announced. Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt declined to comment on Davis' statement, and messages left with Clinton's foundation weren't immediately returned on Tuesday.
Blacks make up 35 percent of Chicago's population, a key voting bloc that has the potential to doom or elevate a candidate. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll showed Davis leading Emanuel among black voters, but just barely. Davis was backed by 21 percent of black voters, Emanuel was backed by 19 percent, but 30 percent were undecided. The poll showed Emanuel leading with 30 percent among all voters surveyed.
Emanuel held various positions in Clinton's administration, including senior policy adviser, director of special projects and political director. Davis also has known Clinton for years, and political consultant Delmarie Cobb said Davis was among the first black leaders to support Clinton's presidential campaign before he had widespread name recognition.
"I can see where Danny Davis would be very upset," Cobb said.
Braun, the race's other leading black candidate, joined the U.S. Senate the same year Clinton became president, and he was always supportive of her, Cobb said. Clinton appointed Braun as ambassador to New Zealand after she lost her Senate re-election bid.
Messages left for Braun's campaign weren't immediately returned.
Clinton — who Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison once dubbed the country's first black president — still enjoys a great deal of support among black voters, and Davis said part of his concern is about Clinton's impact on the mayor's race.
"I think he certainly has some sway and power," Davis said. "He's still a tremendous draw."
But Cobb wasn't convinced that Clinton's popularity would translate into votes. She and other black leaders want Clinton to stay on the sidelines because "a president shouldn't inject himself in a local mayoral race. He's an international figure."
"This is not something he should be a part of, especially when he has no direct ties to Chicago," Cobb said. "He is bigger than this."
While Davis said his message to Clinton was meant to be a friendly appeal, the tone of his statement was more direct, suggesting that the former president would lose black support if he campaigned for Emanuel.
"The African-American community has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Clintons, however it appears as though some of that relationship maybe fractured and perhaps even broken should former President Clinton come to town and participate overtly in efforts to thwart the legitimate political aspirations of Chicago's Black community," the statement said.
Cobb echoed that sentiment, saying that if Clinton visits Chicago for Emanuel, "it would appear that the president was supporting a white man over Hispanic and African-American and women candidates, and I'm sure that's not . . . the perception the president wants to project."