Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle today endorsed a young, first-time candidate in a crowded West Side county commissioner contest that includes a former alderman who did time for political corruption.
The rare public show of support in a down-ballot contest from two of the city's heaviest hitters is a good get for Blake Sercye, a little-known 27-year-old attorney with a prominent Chicago law firm.
Then again, the March 18 contest for the 1st District County Board seat is a far-from-ordinary campaign. Among the five Democrats running is ex-Ald. Isaac "Ike" Carothers, who got out of federal prison two years ago following a conviction for bribery and tax fraud but still is considered a political force in the 29th Ward.
Reached today by the Tribune, Carothers maintained that he’s the best candidate for the job because, his "trials and tribulations aside," he has a record of success as an elected official that he said includes the completion of various projects in the 29th Ward and "the elevation of services to a level not seen, certainly on the West Side."
And Carothers noted that both Emanuel and Preckwinkle have publicly supported programs to help ex-offenders. "I certainly respect them, and I believe they both believe in second chances for people who have had problems with the law," Carothers said. "I would hope they aren't against the concept of a person getting a second chance."
As she endorsed Sercye at a news conference, Preckwinkle said those second chances shouldn’t extend to putting people who have violated the public trust in elected office.
“I believe in second chances,” Preckwinkle said. “I believe those who are convicted of crimes can have second acts in life. I very much hope that is true for former Ald. Ike Carothers. I also believe that abusing trust, the public trust, taking bribes and misusing tax dollars should disqualify you from holding elected office again. This is the law for the city of Chicago, and it should be the law for Cook County as well.
“The good news is that residents of the diverse communities comprising the 1st District — including Austin, Oak Park, Maywood Bellwood and Broadview — have a wonderful alternative in Blake Sercye to vote for on March 18,” Preckwinkle added.
Emanuel praised Sercye’s values, noting his continued volunteer work to help youngsters on the West Side even after landing a high-level job with a major law firm. The mayor also said electing Sercye would prevent the county from moving backward “because this is the time to look forward and not stop on bringing change and reform.”
For Emanuel and Preckwinkle, the endorsement of Sercye is a way to try to head off another round of only-in-Chicago stories spotlighting the city's historical political corruption that would follow a successful Carothers comeback. State law bars Carothers from trying to return to the Chicago City Council, but he's free to run for County Board.
The district, now represented by retiring longtime Commissioner Earlean Collins, includes parts of the Far West Side and a swath of the western suburbs including Oak Park and much of Maywood. Also running are attorney and lobbyist Richard Boykin, a former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Danny Davis; Ronald Lawless, who owns an insurance and financial consulting firm and has made previous unsuccessful bids for public office; and Brenda Smith, a West Side activist.
Boykin today was endorsed by Davis and a group of West Side ministers, a day after he received the backing of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization. He’s also backed by Sheriff Tom Dart and the Chicago Federation of Labor.
Boykin also has raised a significant amount — more than $61,000 — in large campaign contributions since the start of the year, adding to the nearly $50,000 he already listed in his campaign fund. Sercye had more than $37,000 and hasn’t reported any large contributions since Jan. 1, according to state records. Neither Carothers nor Smith nor Lawless had reported raising any money, State Board of Elections records show.
Preckwinkle dismissed concerns that backing Sercye would split the “anti-Carothers” vote between Sercye and Boykin. “I strongly disagree” with that idea, she said. “I think both the mayor and I are supporting the best candidate in this race. . . . I’m going to work hard for Blake, and I expect him to win this race.”
Boykin, 45, of Oak Park, attributed the high-level endorsements to his support of Republican Sen. Mark Kirk in the 2010 general election over Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.
“This all about, really, an effort to sting Boykin — they don’t like me because I supported Sen. Kirk,” said Boykin, who also has worked for U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun. “I will work for bipartisanship.”
“I’m proud to be a lifelong Democrat,” Boykin added. “I’ve never pulled a Republican ballot. . . but I am also an independent thinker who can think for himself.”
Preckwinkle also said that she and Emanuel each pledged to contribute or raise $52,500 for Sercye.
Sercye might be a first-time candidate, but he's no stranger to Democratic politics. While a student at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, he met then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, a Fenwick alum. Sercye then scored a summer internship in Quinn's office.
In 2010 he was a field coordinator for Quinn's campaign for governor. He was political director for Emanuel's mayoral campaign in 2011, the same year Sercye got his law degree from the University of Chicago.
Political ties to Preckwinkle are less obvious, but she has made it clear she's not backing Carothers, a former City Council colleague with whom she did not see eye to eye.
Sercye said he and his brother were raised by a single mother in Austin, so he understands the district. He said he's interested in the issues of reducing the Cook County Jail population, expanding health care access and getting more vacant property back into productive use for affordable housing and business development.
The election, he said, provides an opportunity to "get a progressive leader from the West Side."
"We're at a point right now where we have an opportunity to bring in new, smart leadership that has an understanding of the district — smart, ethical, transparent, everything that the voters deserve," Sercye said. "It's about seizing that moment, when we know that the alternative we have will bring that in doubt."
Although it's his first time on the ballot, in 2010 Sercye threw his hat in the ring to be appointed to replace former state Rep. Deborah Graham after then-Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed her to replace Carothers on the City Council.
While Sercye will be able to tout support from Emanuel and Preckwinkle, Carothers has his own backing, including from 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts, a former protege.
"I think he has done his time and it's up to the voters to decide whether to give him a second chance," Mitts told the Tribune last fall.
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