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Carol Moseley Braun Hopes To Broaden Appeal Beyond Black Voters

DON BABWIN   01/ 7/11 04:59 PM ET   AP

Chicago Mayor Braun

CHICAGO — Not long after Chicago's black leaders settled on former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun as their best hope to elect an African-American mayor, she made one thing clear: She intended to seek support from a broad range of voters – not just black ones.

Braun made sure she visited a South Side street corner where two black teens were shot to talk about violence, but she also spoke on a Polish radio show. She appeared at a major black church, but also points out that she's in the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame for championing gay causes. She's even got an event planned at a vegan restaurant – part of a bid to capture votes among the city's wealthy "lakefront liberals."

"We're going to bring black, white, brown, one side of town to the other, back together again," she declared at a rally.

Black leaders believed she was the best candidate to reach outside the black community to contend against Rahm Emanuel and other top candidates for the mayor's job. But she's also a candidate with a pile of political baggage who hasn't won an election of any kind in nearly 20 years.

Many of the voters who in 1992 made her the first black woman ever elected to the Senate were so disappointed with her performance in Washington that they may be reluctant to support her again. And in recent weeks, she has made some brow-raising public statements for a candidate seeking high office: She refused to release her tax returns, saying only that she didn't want to, then begrudgingly reversed course. And she got into a public, name-calling spat with a newspaper columnist.

Even Braun's own spokeswoman acknowledged getting worried when the candidate opens her mouth.

"Am I a little nervous when she starts to talk to people?" Renee Ferguson said. "Yes, I am."

Ferguson also acknowledged that some of Braun's comments might hurt her with undecided voters.

"On the other hand, I'm not trying to rein her in," Ferguson said. "She has to be herself. She has to be who she is, and they (voters) ought to know who they are getting."

At the same time, even Braun's detractors acknowledge her charisma and her ability to connect with audiences beyond the city's black community, which makes up roughly a third of the population.

"Getting her in front of people is what really works," Ferguson said. "She has an awesome grasp of the issues and encyclopedic knowledge ... and it's hard to get that from sound bites."

Still, Braun has some explaining to do if she wants to make a credible attempt to defeat Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, and former Chicago schools president Gery Chico and City Clerk Miguel del Valle. All three have more recent and more active government experience.

First, she must convince voters that she can run a city swimming in red ink, despite having a 2009 net income of less than $16,000 and reporting a total loss of $224,000 the previous year. She has attributed the financial problems to her organic tea business, which has struggled during the recession.

"She has to show she is prepared," said Tom Manion, a longtime political operative who helped direct Daley's first re-election campaign in 1991

Even more important is how voters will react to episodes from her Senate days that led voters to throw her out after a single term, such as her decision to meet with a brutal Nigerian dictator.

Then there were the never-proven allegations that she misused campaign money left over from her Senate race for personal luxuries. The Justice Department declined an Internal Revenue Service request to take the case to a grand jury. And her one-time boyfriend was accused of sexually harassing female campaign workers.

Braun denied any wrongdoing, has never been charged with a crime and has said the investigation into the sexual harassment allegations found nothing.

But quietly, some of the city's wealthy liberals, particularly women, say they will never vote for Braun again because they feel she embarrassed them after becoming the first African-American woman elected to the Senate.

Laura Washington, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist and TV political analyst, said Braun is trying to overcome the shadow cast by her undistinguished Senate career.

"She's reaching out to a cadre of progressive older female voters who were a huge part of her base, trying to mend fences there," Washington said. "There is still a lot of anger out there that, `We made history for you, and you let us down."

Dawn Clark Netsch, a former state comptroller who in 1990 was elected the highest-ranking woman in Illinois government, said some of Braun's actions confirmed the perceptions of the old boys' network about women – "that they're not serious enough, too emotional and undisciplined."

Braun has "a lot of work to do to restore credibility" among women, especially those who are activists and fundraisers.

Michele Smith, a Democratic committeeman running for alderman on the city's North Side, said that even among voters who don't remember specific stories about Braun, "There is a general feeling of, `Wasn't she involved in something?'"

The fact that the election is less than two months away might work in Braun's favor, Smith said, because "name recognition is very important in a race where you have to get known and elected in three months."

Ferguson suggests that Braun's place in Senate history might make it risky for opponents to bring up the old allegations.

"That doesn't resonate with women at all," she said. "She was a pioneer, and they don't want to see a pioneer beaten up."

Besides, Washington said, Braun might turn that to her advantage.

"Some women want to see a tough cookie," she said

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Filed by Jen Sabella  |