CHICAGO — Illinois state Sen. James Meeks withdrew his candidacy for Chicago mayor on Thursday, and he urged other African-American candidates to follow his lead and rally what he called a divided black community around a single candidate.
The surprise Christmas week announcement came a day after he met to discuss the idea of a unity candidate from the city's large African-American community with fellow Democratic candidates U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, both of whom are black.
"My friends, I come before you today to say that our city – and our community – is divided," Meeks said in a statement. "As long as our community remains divided and splintered – to the specific advantage of the front-running, status quo candidates – we will never see things improve. We need to speak with one voice."
While the idea of a consensus African-American candidate has been discussed for weeks, Meeks has stumbled in recent days while courting voters and he won little support in a recent poll. He said in his statement he had no plans to endorse any other candidate, and his spokeswoman said he would not have any further comment as he planned to spend the holidays with his family.
Meeks, a senior pastor of a mega church on Chicago's South Side, said in his statement that even though he believed he was the best candidate, he would leave the race and he wanted the remaining candidates to submit to "a caucus of clergy, elected officials, and residents whose sole purpose shall be to winnow the remaining field down to one candidate."
Davis, reached by telephone after Meeks' withdrawal, said he had no intention of dropping out. "I think there will be a consensus when people vote," the congressman said.
In November, a coalition of black clergy members, business leaders and community activists concerned about splitting the black vote selected Davis as their preferred candidate. A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released earlier this month showed Davis was the leading black candidate in the crowded field, with support from 9 percent of registered likely voters.
Meeks followed with 7 percent, and Braun had 6 percent.
A spokeswoman for the coalition, Tracey Alston, said Thursday that group leaders are still convinced one black unity candidate will emerge.
"Stay tuned," Alston said. "The process is ongoing. It will remain ongoing until there is one candidate."
More than a dozen candidates remain on the ballot for the Feb. 22 election, including former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. He cleared a major hurdle Thursday in the race to replace retiring Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley when city election officials rejected a residency challenge that would have kept him off the ballot.
Meeks, believed to have a wide base of support centered around his 10,000-seat arena-style church, has been known for his education advocacy, particularly a highly publicized school-funding protest he led in 2008. But he recently ran into trouble with other minority groups and has struggled to appeal to gay voters.
Last month, during a mayoral forum on the black-oriented radio station WVON, he said that Asians, Hispanics and women should not be considered "minorities" in the same fashion as African Americans. The comment angered numerous community and advocacy groups.
Meeks, who doesn't support civil unions, also has been meeting with gay advocacy groups to quell concerns that he opposes gay rights.