“To be honest, prior to 2009 I used to be a Democrat,” said David Earl Williams III, a candidate for the 9th District in the Illinois House of Representatives. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the usually pink walls of Luversia’s Soul Food Diner were covered with an American flag. It hovered over Williams’s head, falling down twice. Men in suits, with nametags on their lapels, rushed to tape it back up.

In the heart of Chatham, Izola’s Restaurant was once famous as a social and political meeting place for community favorites. It fed figures such as Harold Washington and Muhammad Ali until it closed in 2011. Luversia’s, which opened last year to take its place, continued that tradition with an unusual South Side party. The Republican Party, with all of their Chicago candidates for the 2014 election, chose this restaurant to hold a meet-and-greet. With funding appeals, speeches, and collard greens, this well-known South Side gathering spot served as the stage for a new set of ideals—new, at least, for the heavily Democratic South Side.

“In the black community, ‘Republican’ and ‘conservative’ are bad words,” Fatimah Macklin, a candidate for the 34th District, said. “It’s ingrained in people. People in the African-American community are basically raised to be Democrats.” The meet-and-greet was part of a new Republican Party initiative to create more competition in the upcoming elections, and to support Bruce Rauner’s Republican bid for governor. With essentially every office in the city occupied by a Democratic incumbent, the Republican Party is struggling to even provide enough candidates to contest the thirty-seven seats. “We can’t get votes unless we get candidates,” Chris Cleveland, vice chairman of the Chicago Republican Party, declared to the room. “So if you know of anyone who has even thought of being a candidate or running for office….”

The evening began with an informal meeting-and-eating time, with Darnell Macklin, Republican committeeman for the 6th Ward, making introductions and candidates ordering sides of mac and cheese. Although crowded, warm, and louder-than-buzzing, the crowd was comprised mainly of the candidates themselves, along with a few staffers and enthusiastic spouses. The handshakes, smiles, and two-minute speeches that each candidate was allotted were necessarily directed to other Republican candidates, rather than any potential voters. “Say ‘FREEDOM!’ ” one candidate said with a smile, as he snapped a quick photo of himself with a fellow Republican.

As the night went on and each candidate took turns standing at the front of the room to give a short address, the initial feeling of Republican camaraderie acquired a confessional tone. “If you’re a black conservative, you go through a lot of stuff,” explained Eric Wallace, who is running for the 2nd District. “When I tell people I’m a Republican, they gasp,” Darnell Macklin said, as people shook their heads in sympathy and agreement. The theme of being not only a political underdog but also the victim of legitimate stigmatization was closely tied to King himself, whose legacy each speaker dutifully invoked. Dan Proft, a white radio talk-show host, addressed the room first: “I don’t think it would be appropriate to talk about the black experience,” he said with laughter and applause from the mainly black audience. “I want to talk about a minority experience we all share: being a political, an intellectual minority.”

The candidates talked enthusiastically about their personal values, and how their conservative ideals were an opportunity for much-needed change in Chicago. The candidate for the 26th District, Coby Hakalir, blared, “People are ready for a different voice. When you look at the unemployment rate and you look at the quality of schools and you look at the quality of life, and you look at our taxes, the fact that we have billions in unpaid debt, people are finally starting to realize that maybe there is somebody else we should be listening to about these things. I’m happy to provide that voice.” Candidates openly discussed their trepidation about telling voters that they are Republicans, afraid that constituents in their neighborhoods would automatically ignore them. Yet, though anxious about their party label, the candidates appeared certain that their values were more representative of their neighborhoods than those of the Democratic platform. According to Fatimah Macklin, “When I come to voters I don’t say I’m a Republican or I’m a conservative. I just talk and have real conversations with them. And their values align with mine”.

But mixed with endorsements for conservative policies, family values, and fiscal responsibility was an undercurrent of criticism against the Republican Party itself. “Even for me, I was a Democrat prior to this,” said Fatimah Macklin. “Republicans never came to our area, they never reached out to us.” When asked why being a Republican is so unpopular on the South Side, Macklin responded, “It’s all about messaging. They want to do outreach, and then they’ll have a flyer out, or a poster or something in the news, and you see nothing but white people. Well, that’s not going to be outreach to the black community. It just takes someone like me to actually come out and talk to the younger generation and see that there are black Republicans and black conservatives. If someone older or white tried to come out and talk, it wouldn’t be the same.” Bob Rogeh, a white candidate running for state treasurer, was even more explicit with his frustration: “The Republican Party has failed because they have not been here with the candidates enough, helping them.”

As the evening came to a close and the line of speakers slowly dwindled, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner arrived on the scene. The biggest politician was also the biggest man in the room, towering over the tables filled with food, as candidates rushed to shake hands or give him their card. Rauner, the leading opponent in the race against incumbent Pat Quinn, was the most polished and the most practiced politician in Luversia’s that night. After delivering a few choice talking points about term limits for senators and investments in education, Rauner concluded with an appeal to his audience: he explained that African-Americans voters have been “ignored by Republicans” and “taken advantage of by Democrats.” In a loud and somewhat toneless voice, Rauner discussed the abuse of the African-American voter, and held forth on the importance of turning to conservative values. Rauner’s appearance at the end of the evening seemed more like a treat for the other candidates than a serious stop on his campaign trail. He offered encouragement, took several photos, and ordered nothing to eat.

This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 5, 2014

Due to an editing error, the print version of this story incorrectly identified talk-show host Dan Proft as Dan Kropp.

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