CHICAGO — It is difficult to imagine a less likely GOP presidential campaign stop than O Block.
After all, it’s the most dangerous stretch of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Chicago and one of the toughest territories in the city.
But if Republicans stand a chance of chipping away at Democrats’ dominance over the black vote in this city and elsewhere, it might be something to consider.
“African Americans have been loyal to the Democratic Party,” Pastor Corey Brooks said. “But there is a group of African Americans that feel like the Democratic Party has not been loyal to us.”
Not far from O Block—named for a fallen gang member killed by a female assassin—is New Beginnings Church of Chicago, where Brooks sat in his office Wednesday morning laying out the case for Republican presidential candidates to visit the area.
So far, only Rand Paul already has taken him up on his offer—extended to all candidates of each party. The two walked through Parkway Gardens, an apartment complex along O Block, after Paul’s speech to his congregation.
Brooks isn’t the only person to believe a great change must occur for inner cities across the country to be able to break free from the poverty and crime that envelope them. But the pastor is looking to a different source than others for that change, one that doesn’t usually count O Block among its campaign stops: Republicans.
Look around the neighborhood that contains O Block—Woodlawn—and you’ll see why, Brooks said.
“We have a large, disproportionate number of people who are impoverished. We have a disproportionate number of people who are incarcerated, we have a disproportionate number of people who are unemployed, the educational system has totally failed, and all of this primarily has been under Democratic regimes in our neighborhoods,” Brooks said from the office of New Beginnings Church of Chicago, his own, Wednesday morning. “So, the question for me becomes, how can our neighborhoods be doing so awful and so bad when we’re so loyal to this party who is in power? It’s a matter of them taking complete advantage of our vote.”
So Brooks has mobilized.
Not only did he take it upon himself to bring Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to New Beginnings as he ran to become the first Republican to lead the state in more than two decades, but Brooks also supported Rauner, something that didn’t exactly come roaring out of Chicago’s South Side.
And while Brooks has yet to announce publicly who he supports for president, his political leanings are well known in his church and around Woodlawn.
But the reason he invited all active presidential candidates to New Beginnings isn’t to secure votes for the GOP, he said, but to give members of the community the opportunity to be as informed an electorate as possible.
And why not? Since the civil rights movement blacks have overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, both on the national and local levels, Brooks noted.
But the results simply aren’t there.
“They have a failing plan,” he said of Democrats. “A business owner wouldn’t allow the person who runs it to remain in charge for 50 years, constantly running it into the ground.”
A political science major at Ball State University, Brooks moved to Chicago 20 years ago from his hometown of Muncie, Indiana. In addition to his church, a bustling hub of activity that includes a spacious worship room complete with projection screens and theater seating, Brooks is preparing to break ground on a community center just across Martin Luther King Jr. Drive — without any government assistance, naturally.
When he first moved to the city he kept his political opinions to himself, not wanting to rock the boat, but after seeing a lack of progress he “couldn’t stomach it.” There is tension, he said, because growing up black on the South Side of Chicago means, for many, “You are a Democrat. Period.”
That has led to the Democratic Party taking the black vote for granted, Brooks said.
“And we don’t want anyone from any party taking us for granted.”
Across the board, it seems, Brooks is a Republican.
He spoke in strong terms about unions—“I can’t tell you how many guys come to me and tell they’re locked out of the trade unions for this reason or that,” Brooks said. “And in Chicago, the unions control everything.”
The pastor is in favor of legally possessing guns, even on the bullet-riddled South Side. And he blames the breakdown of the black family, partly due to social programs that “penalize” those who wish to marry and prevent them from continuing to receive government assistance, for the culture of violence that is so pervasive in urban areas from Woodlawn to West Baltimore.
“And that doesn’t even begin to get into the music and entertainment aspects of it,” Brooks said.
Brooks is not an anomaly, either. But overcoming the power and pressure of the Democratic Party’s relationship with the black community, despite its stance on social issues that often lean conservative, isn’t easy.
“In quiet areas,” Brooks said, “this is something we talk about.”
Some have replied to Brooks’s request to stop by his church for what he’s calling the American Urban Issues Presidential Series. While Paul is the only Republican to make the trip, so far, Brooks said he heard back from the campaigns of Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders.
For Brooks, exposing his congregation and neighbors in Woodlawn to Republican politics is simply part of a conversation that has yet to be had, a new and sometimes unsettling interaction.
But, in an age where many in the black community may be just as concerned with the police who patrol their neighborhoods as they are the politicians who control them, Republican presidential hopefuls early in a long campaign might not be the biggest draw.
Still, Brooks said, Democrats must be held accountable for their inaction. And the GOP, as imperfect a sell as it may be for African Americans, seems the most viable alternative.
“There’s a class of African Americans who have gone on to be very successful, and we’re grateful and thankful for that,” Brooks said, noting the progress of the civil rights movement and the decades of Democratic success at winning the black vote in the decades that followed. “But with their success, some of them didn’t bring it back to the community.”
For Republicans to break into that stronghold, though, they have to show up. Luckily for them, Corey Brooks has a church on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive that will welcome them. Maybe O Block is next.