Dorothy Brown’s campaign has worked hard to present her as a symbol of civil rights and reform. So far, other black leaders haven’t given her much backup, but the good news for her campaign is that it’s getting easier to find people to contrast her with.  

First, on the day he backed out of a mayoral campaign, Jesse Jackson Jr. refused to rule out endorsing Mayor Daley, even though he’d spent the previous two years blasting his leadership. A couple of weeks later, former Daley opponent Bobby Rush said he thought Daley had done a great job and deserved another term, and a pair of wealthy black businesswomen held a Daley fund-raiser. Yesterday, reverend and state senator James Meeks—who spent his summer ripping Daley’s educational leadership as racist—appeared with the mayor and dismissed the notion of backing anyone else in the February election. “I probably won’t be endorsing anyone who can’t win,” Meeks told reporters.  

After each of the earlier developments, Brown’s campaign called press conferences in which she criticized the support for Daley, blaming him for corruption, educational inequality, and inadequate supervision of rogue police officers. Even in leveling protests, though, Brown emphasized her own credentials as an attorney and CPA, and she seemed to take pains to present herself as professional, conservative, and altogether collected.  

As expected, Brown held another press conference today to respond to Meeks’s remarks. But this time, whether she was overtaken by emotion or overtaken by a campaign plan to show some, it was a different Dorothy Brown talking to reporters.

“The comments by reverend and state senator James Meeks were disappointing and insulting, given my record of accomplishments and the kind of campaign I’m running,” she said. “I’m hurt and I’m incensed. The remarks disrespected me as a woman and as an African-American. I have worked hard—” 

And then she stopped. At first some of us wondered if she had lost her place in the notes before her. Brown looked right at the camera, looked down, and looked up again. “Growing up poor, with uneducated parents—” 

By this point, it was clear that she was crying.  

“That’s OK, clerk,” said press secretary John Davis. 

“All right, Dorothy,” said campaign manager Paul Davis. “Just take your time.” 

Several long moments passed before Brown resumed. She was obviously feeling bad, but I for one couldn’t tell if it was prompted by the memory of her parents or the images of other black leaders holding photo-ops with Daley.  

“I had parents who taught me the value of hard work and education, who taught me to stand up for the downtrodden—that’s why I’m in this race,” Brown said. Pointing out that she’s a countywide office-holder, just as Daley was when he was first elected mayor, Brown declared that she was perfectly qualified to run the city. Then she not-so-subtly questioned the civil rights credentials of her latest doubter. “For Reverend Meeks to make these statements says that you can’t enjoy the dream to be judged by the content of your character and not the color of your skin.” 

The reporters in the room didn’t buy all that, but they didn’t exactly fire away at Brown, either. The first few questions were softballs. One reporter said he thought Meeks had spoken casually, offhandedly, and may not have meant any disrespect. Another pointed out that Meeks hadn’t actually said he was endorsing Daley. Others noted that it’s in many ways an old story—nobody wants to take the risk of alienating the incumbent mayor.

Just as, this afternoon at least, nobody seemed to have anything bad to say about Dorothy Brown—except that some people out there don’t believe she can win. In fact, the toughest question of the afternoon, posed by a veteran sitting on a table to the side, had nothing to do with Meeks or Daley: “You know, Harold Washington once said, ‘Politics ain’t beanbag.’ Do you think you have thick enough skin to do this?” 

Brown gripped the podium and gazed back at him. Maybe she couldn’t get outraged—not on public display, at least—but she could show everyone that she was serious. “Yes,” she said. “I’m in this race to win it.”