UPDATED 11/15/10 8:22 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Illinois state Sen. James Meeks says he’s running for mayor of Chicago.
Meeks made the announcement Sunday at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The state senator is also pastor of a megachurch on the South Side.
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“I know how to unite this city,” Meeks shouted to more than 400 cheering supporters. “We can unite the city of Chicago once and for all. . . . How about all of us being the city of Chicago — a city that really works? That’s why I want to be the next mayor of the city of Chicago.”
He also passed the hat like a preacher, warning attendees not to leave without dropping a campaign contribution in an envelope. And he invoked God’s presence like a preacher.
But Meeks arranged his campaign kickoff like a skilled political pro, pulling off the coup of having the state’s former Republican chairman, Andy McKenna, introduce him.
“The best person for the next mayor of Chicago is Sen. James Meeks,” McKenna said. “I’ve seen his leadership style: Sen. Meeks brings people together. He doesn’t care where you’re from. People of wealth, people of need, Sen. Meeks will work with anyone who will work with him to make Chicago better.”
McKenna worked closely with Meeks this year on Meeks’ failed effort to secure vouchers for private schools in poor Chicago neighborhoods. The effort failed in the face of opposition from teachers’ unions.
But of all the candidates for mayor, Meeks has probably been most closely aligned with Republicans on social issues such as vouchers for private schools, opposition to abortion and coolness to gay rights, though Meeks has recently met with gay rights activists to mend those fences.
New Trier High School social studies teacher Tom Kucharski praised Meeks for bringing busloads of students from Chicago’s South Side up to the North Shore to try to register at New Trier to draw attention to the inequity of New Trier spending $19,000 per student while the Chicago Public Schools spend $13,000.
“What other politicians have ever really tried” to call attention to that inequity, Kucharski asked. Then Kucharski took a shot at Meeks’ rival Rahm Emanuel, who left his post as President Obama’s chief of staff to run for mayor.
“I’m sad to say it because he graduated from New Trier, but I don’t remember Rahm Emanuel bringing this issue up,” Kucharski said.
Education has always been Meeks’ focus, and he has used controversial stunts to try to force state leaders to meet their constitutional obligation to provide the bulk of education funding instead of relying on property taxes — a situation that leads to the disparities Kucharski spoke about.
“Sen. Meeks has one clear priority — it was there clear the first time he ran for office: children and education,” McKenna said.
Meeks said that’s why he show-cased talented children speaking, singing and playing violin at his kickoff.
“A city that really works is going to have to educate every child in that city,” Meeks said.
And it has to employ every citizen, Meeks said, sounding very pro-business if not Republican.
“We must protect business at all costs,” Meeks said. “Why should we protect business? Only strong businesses can create good-paying jobs. That’s why we need to protect the business community of the city of Chicago, so the business community can create the jobs that our unemployed are desperately in need of.”
McKenna will co-chair Meeks’ finance committee with ComEd CEO Frank Clark and Executive Vice President John Hooker.
About 134,000 Chicagoans voted for Republican Mark Kirk for senator Nov. 2. That’s about a fifth of the electorate. The mayor’s race is officially nonpartisan, though the major candidates are Democrats, including Meeks. Candidates for mayor and aldermen will begin filing their petitions to run at 9 Monday morning.
Meeks was the third candidate to officially join the race this weekend. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel announced his candidacy Saturday and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis made his run official earlier Sunday.
They are are all running to replace Mayor Richard M. Daley, who announced in September he wouldn’t seek a seventh term. The election is Feb. 22.
The field also includes City Clerk Miguel del Valle and former Chicago school board president Gery Chico, who have already declared.
Former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun plans an official announcement soon.
The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.
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© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.