CHICAGO -- Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, has emerged as the sole prominent African American candidate in the Chicago mayor's race after the withdrawal of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.
Davis' decision, announced at a New Year's Eve news conference, followed weeks of pressure from African American leaders who believed that only a consensus black candidate would have a chance to beat former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and other prominent contenders in the race to replacing retiring Mayor Richard Daley.
Braun, 63, who Illinois residents elected to the Senate in 1992, faces questions about miscues during her time in Washington and about being out of the spotlight for years. But in recent days she had emphasized her profile in Chicago and beyond, better support in the city's business community, and her likely fundraising advantage over Davis.
The congressman had been leading Braun in at least one poll among likely voters in the Feb. 22 election. But he got a late start in campaigning and made headlines this past week for criticizing former President Bill Clinton's plans to campaign for Emanuel.
"We have a challenge before us to achieve unity, that starts here tonight, but also achieve unity for the whole city," Braun said.
Davis' withdrawal comes a week after the third major black candidate, state Sen. James Meeks, also dropped out. Both of them offered full support for Braun, and Davis touted her experience, which in addition to senator included a stint as an assistant U.S. attorney and state lawmaker, and later as ambassador to New Zealand.
"I come to help prove that unity can be more than a concept," Davis said. "Chicago has never had a more qualified, a more pedigreed, a more experienced person to go into City Hall and sit on the fifth floor."
The emergence of a unity black candidate could have a profound impact on the race, which will lead to an April 5 runoff between the two top vote getters if no one gets at least 50 percent in the first round.
The idea behind a consensus candidate was that more than one would split black votes and decrease the chance for representation. More than one-third of the city's 3 million residents are black.
Laura Washington, a political analyst and newspaper columnist, said Davis' decision demonstrated "a sense of political maturity that's welcome." She said Braun would appeal not only to blacks, but also to women, and that Davis' withdrawal might put pressure on the prominent Latino candidates in the race to also seek a consensus.
Other contenders include former school board president Gery Chico and City Treasurer Miguel del Valle.
In statements, Emanuel and Del Valle merely praised Davis for his public service. But Chico signaled how he and other candidates may now feel they need to target Emanuel and Braun, and possibly try to taint them with their Washington experience.
"Regardless of who gets in or out of this race, I am the only candidate with a Chicago resume that is built for mayor," Chico said. "My two major opponents are Washington D.C. politicians."
A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll released earlier this month showed Davis as 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.
The Tribune/WGN poll showed Davis leading Emanuel among black voters, but just barely. Davis was backed by 21 percent of black voters to Emanuel's 19 percent. But 30 percent were undecided.
The overall poll showed Emanuel leading with 30 percent among all voters surveyed.
Appearing together, Braun, Davis and Meeks said the congressman's decision came after meetings Friday and earlier in the week, including a four-hour gathering Wednesday brokered by Rev. Jesse Jackson. Davis, a longtime friend of Clinton, raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he warned Clinton that he could jeopardize his "long and fruitful relationship" with the black community if he campaigns, as planned, for Emanuel instead of one of the black candidates.
"People thought we would be divided and this would be a bitter campaign among African-Americans," said Meeks, also the senior pastor of a large church on Chicago's South Side. "We have a lot of problems in our community . . . and the last thing we wanted was this division to continue."