For years, Carol Moseley Braun, the former Illinois senator, U.S. ambassador, and 2004 presidential candidate, would jokingly describe herself as a "recovering politician" as she focused on her Chicago-based organic food company.
Now Braun, 63, is looking for a comeback. She is running for mayor of Chicago in a crowded field that includes former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Rep. Danny Davis, and former City Colleges chief Gery Chico, as well as Sen. Roland Burris and even the man Emanuel rented his house to when he moved to Washington to work in the Obama administration.
After years of sitting it out, I asked Braun on Wednesday why she wanted to jump back in the rough-and-tumble fray of Chicago politics. "I love Chicago," she replied. "This is my home. I am passionate about the quality-of-life issues here."
Braun made history in 1992 when she became the first female African-American U.S. senator. At the time, she was the Cook County Recorder of Deeds -- an obscure office -- and a former Illinois state representative. In a campaign fueled by feminist outrage over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, she defeated incumbent Sen. Alan Dixon in the Illinois Democratic primary after he voted to confirm Thomas.
Braun's Senate tenure was dogged by controversies, including what she would later call the biggest mistake of her political life -- a 1996 visit to Nigeria where, without informing the State Department, she met with the late dictator Sani Abacha, earning her terrible press.
She was defeated after one term by Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who quit after one term and was replaced by Barack Obama, a Chicagoan from the South Side who helped Braun's historic 1992 Senate race by leading a voter registration drive. After her loss to Fitzgerald, President Bill Clinton nominated Braun to be ambassador to New Zealand -- hence the name of her food company, Ambassador Organics, which mainly sells coffee, tea and spices.
Braun tried for a comeback once before, running in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary in which she was the only female in the field. (Her decision not to try to recapture her Illinois Senate seat in that year cleared the way for Obama to run and win, launching him on a road that led to the White House.)
Much of the national attention on the mayoral race has been on Emanuel, who is leading every poll in the contest to replace Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who announced in September he would not seek a seventh term. The race has attracted 20 contenders who filed nominating petitions by Monday's deadline. Not all of them are expected to remain on the ballot, which will not be finalized for the Feb. 22 primary until Dec. 23. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the nonpartisan primary, the top two vote-getters face an April 5 runoff.
Braun said she is not concerned about what could be a Chicago political bloodbath: a race for a rare open mayoral seat. Daley was elected mayor in 1989 and re-elected ever since.
"I've never been afraid of anything or anybody," she told me. "I've been international, and national and state and local; it is just what it is. Politics, as Harold Washington once said, ain't beanbag." (Washington was Chicago's first African-American mayor.)
"You need to have the experience to get around and understand it and I've learned a lot over the years. I hope to take the cumulative experience that I have had and use it to get a message out to Chicagoans that I am not only ready to serve as mayor, but able, capable, and passionate about the city's future."
Braun has been aggressive in dealing with front-runner Emanuel. On Wednesday, when Braun went to a Chicago church to serve a pre-Thanksgiving meal, her spokesman issued a statement jabbing Emanuel for being in Los Angeles watching a Lakers-Chicago Bulls game from a ringside seat. Emanuel was in Los Angeles to celebrate Thanksgiving with his brother Ari, a Hollywood super-agent.
But Braun's strongest attack on Emanuel came after Democrats took, as President Obama put it, a "shellacking" in the November elections.
On Nov. 4, the day Emanuel flew to Los Angeles for a Hollywood fundraiser for his mayoral bid, she slammed him for "abandoning" Obama after "pushing policies that [led] to the biggest Democratic Party political loss in 27 years."
"He left the president holding the bag," Braun said in a statement that claimed Emanuel "cut and ran" on Obama by leaving the White House to run for mayor. "If Rahm abandoned the president of the United States, what makes anybody think he'll stick by regular Chicagoans?"
As for that fundraiser, Braun said, "On this day when President Obama and Illinois Democrats are still recovering from the painful political debacle that he was the architect of, Rahm Emanuel is off in Hollywood hanging out with bankers and billionaires. But maybe Hollywood is where he belongs because the story of how he 'helped' the Obama administration when he was chief of staff is indeed fiction."
Emanuel's spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said in a statement, "Rahm disagrees with Sen. Moseley Braun's statement -- he doesn't think that the president ushered in a 'debacle' -- he thinks that preventing another Depression and passing health care and financial reform will help countless Americans."
"While Rahm has spent the last several weeks talking with Chicagoans about plans for the city's future -- safe streets, strong schools and stable finances -- Sen. Moseley Braun's statement says nothing about her own plans for the city at this critical juncture for Chicago."
The Emanuel camp also shot back that Braun never endorsed Obama's presidential run. I asked Braun why. "I was in retirement, I was a recovering politician."
Obama looms a bit over the mayoral race. He gave Emanuel a grand send-off as chief of staff, hosting an East Room event that gave him gobs of free Chicago media.
Will Obama, who votes from Chicago, endorse a mayoral candidate or say who will get his vote? There is some division about this within the White House. White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod is a close Emanuel friend. But a key Braun backer is John Rogers, a major Obama fundraiser who is also very close to the president, First Lady Michelle Obama -- he recruited her brother, Craig Robinson, for Princeton's basketball team -- and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett.
"I can feel the energy (for Braun) building," Rogers told me in an interview. "People are having a chance to get reacquainted with Sen. Braun. People are getting excited about her candidacy. Momentum is building."
I asked Braun about Obama's influence in the Chicago mayoral race. "Between North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq, he's got his hands full actually. You never predict these things, but I don't think he is going to get involved in Chicago's mayor race."
Anyway, she said, that presupposes that Emanuel will be on the ballot. Emanuel faces several challenges to his Chicago residency, including one from an attorney who backs mayoral hopeful state Sen. James Meeks. At issue is whether Emanuel forfeited his residency when he moved his family to Washington last year and rented out his Chicago home.
"It's wrong to just think you can parachute in and buy an election in this town," Braun told me. "And Chicagoans are much too sophisticated to let that just pass."
Emanuel's campaign, braced for the challenge, argues that Emanuel always intended to move back to Chicago, that he pays Illinois taxes, and that his Washington relocation was well known to be temporary -- much like a soldier deployed for duty.
Braun, an attorney, was born and raised in Chicago; she received her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago campus, and her law degree from the University of Chicago. She lives near the U of Chicago campus in Hyde Park.
Chicago's mayoral politics are based on race, ethnicity and the neighborhoods where voters live. Braun is one of several African-Americans in the race at this point, but the only major female contender.
In running for mayor, Braun risks reviving the Nigeria story and other unflattering coverage of her Senate tenure. But she risked it once before, when she ran for president, and after some rehashing in the press, she got beyond the stories that dogged her for years.
"It will resurrect what it resurrects," Braun told me. "I think the truth is the light and I am happy to stand by my truth and the facts of my entire career.
"When we size up and hold everybody to account for what they have and have not done for people . . . I believe I win hands down on that one."