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The Other Jesse Jackson

An Interview with Jesse Jr.

   When he’s not gliding around Capital Hill on his Segway, equipped with GPS, the congressman known by most simply as Jesse Jr. has spent the last couple of years serving as national co-chairman of his longtime friend Barack Obama’s campaign. (He says the Segway assists in his near-perfect congressional attendance—he only missed two votes in his 13 years.) He spoke with Chicago Life about how we can invest in Chicago, Obama’s campaign and why we haven’t heard the end of black politics.

You gave a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention. What was it like preparing for that?
   I submitted several drafts to the campaign because, as you know, I’ve been stumping across the country for Barack and I kind of know what works. I’ve been in every conceivable audience. It was a little nerve-wracking because teleprompters are difficult for me to use, and convention speeches are quite different than some of the surroundings of the campaign because when you speak, the reaction from the crowd usually comes at a second or two delayed from thought.

You obviously grew up surrounded by public service, right here in Chicago, but when did you know you wanted to enter politics?
   I was a student at Chicago Theological Seminary when I knew that public service was something I was interested in, but I wasn’t sure it would take the form of elective public service. My wife, who was former staff member for Congressman Mickey Leland and had been the chief of staff for Congressman Cleo Fields from Louisiana, told me that this is something she thought I could do. So I pursued it without any expectations of actually winning in 1995. I ran for office and in a special election was elected.

Being around politics for so much of your life, were you cynical early on?
   You know, I’ve never really considered myself to be a politician. I’ve always been interested in public service, and as a public servant, I find myself correcting people who say you’re just a politician. I say, no, I actually believe in what I’m doing. There are some people who’ve mastered the game of politics, don’t get me wrong, and I’m trying to better understand it, even after being in it for 13 years, but I genuinely see this as a very high science, trying to reconcile people’s differences, bring people together and accomplish something on behalf of the

So being a politician is something you fine-tune over the years?

   I don’t think you can be fixed or set in your assumptions about human nature or human beings. So yes, it requires fine-tuning. People you know in one context are different in another context. You have to give people an opportunity to grow. For example, Barack Obama is not the same person he was at the beginning of this campaign. We’ve watched him grow—we’ve watched him mature. We’ve watched a gentleman, from my perspective, emerge as someone worthy of consideration by the American people to be their 44th president. It doesn’t always start out that way in Iowa.

So do we make a mistake when we chastise politicians for being flip-floppers?
   Sometimes I think we do.

What are the best ways we can invest in Chicago?
   For all that we celebrate in Chicago, its greatest challenge, according to The New York Times, has been that Chicago remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities. And it’s not just racial segregation. It’s also economic segregation. When people visit our burgeoning metropolis, they come from the airport and come downtown and experience the bounty that is Chicago, and many of them never make it to the West Side or the South Side or the south suburbs. I have argued for 14 years that if we expand public infrastructure, primarily aviation, to the south suburbs in a field that is destined to house a third airport, the South Side will have the Hilton and the Hyatt and the Fairmont and the great street State Street, which is north, can also be a great street south. By making sense of federal, state and local dollars in and on these transportation hubs, we can plant a seed, like and unto the seed that Barack is planting with his campaign, that can close some very profound gaps, which will fundamentally shift the social context of Chicago’s politics to a bright new reality for all Chicagoans, all Illinoisans for that matter.

Does Sen. Obama support a third airport?
   Sen. Obama, in the past, has supported our efforts. There’s no doubt about that. He even attempted to bring all the competing sides together under our plan.

What do you see a possible Chicago Olympics doing for the city and a good portion of your district?
   The northern part of my district includes approximately 50 city blocks of lakefront property, enough to build another downtown Chicago right on the lake. It used to house the United States Steel facility, where 22,000 people used to go to work. It has been completely deemed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of residential grade. It’s the highest standard that anyone can have for building. This piece of land doesn’t require the displacement of any Chicagoan or neighborhood, but by building permanent Olympic facilities on this location, it means that North Siders and the international community have to come literally to what would have been a hereto neglected part of the city to participate in the international games.

There were rumors of you possibly running for mayor a couple of years ago. Is that still a possibility for you—or your wife [Alderman Sandi Jackson]?
   I can’t speak for the alderman, but I have put most of my focus over the last year and a half or so in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I’m honored to serve in the Congress of the United States. I’m a legislator. It’s a role that I understand, and I think I’ve done well.

When did you begin to think Obama would make a great president?
   I’ve known Barack for a couple of decades now. He’s always had the spirit and capacity to rise above smallness and offer a great vision. He’s always needed the right stage and right platform, and at every step of his career, I’ve worked with him to try and help provide support for that platform. And at each step, whether right after the Iowa victory or after the South Carolina victory or some of the challenges between Barack and the Clintons or even Barack and my father, I have tried to help people in this country feel more assured that Barack Obama is a very special gift to our nation at this time. Just as my father’s generation looks back with great pride on their accomplishments in the ‘60s that created this great moment, I’m 43 years old, and when I’m 60-some years old, God willing, I want to look back on the role we played and look at my children and say, that’s one more problem you don’t have to worry about.

We’ve heard “community organizer” used as a smear in this election. What do you make of that?
   People who graduate from Ivy League schools and choose not to go to Wall Street and not to go to Washington initially in their careers, recognizing that change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down—the most noble of professions is community organizer.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a cover story “Is Obama the end of Black Politics?” Is this the end?
   I participated with the article. I think he represents a fundamental paradigm shift, but certainly not the end of black politics or African-American participation or the discourse that is the byproduct of it. Let me give you some sense of what I’m suggesting to you. We take great pride in what John Lewis and others accomplished walking across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, ultimately being beaten, but by advancing the cause of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they made America better for all Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the great struggle for it gave us this moment. It gave us Barack Obama. So was that a moment that benefited black Americans or was that a moment that all Americans could celebrate? The 1965 voting act, which really establishes a citizenship right for all Americans, took Hispanic Americans who were in the field and in the shadows of the nation’s society and provided them with sunlight by giving them the right to vote, as well. Today there’s a Hispanic caucus in the Congress, there are Hispanics who serve in the Senate of the United States, there are Hispanics in the administration, southwestern states matter in the electoral college process because of the Latino vote, and so you can’t say that it’s the end of black politics.
   The other point I want to make is that on July 4, 1776, we were one America that looked at African Americans and said, hey, listen, they’re in chattel slavery, they cannot have the right to vote—they’re not full persons—and looked at women, who were not men, they could not vote under the Constitution. July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass is railing about the hypocrisy of Independence Day, and by July 4, 1863, Douglass is asking President Lincoln to let colored troops fight for their own freedom in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln would be giving a speech sometime in October or November of that year, the Gettysburg Address, talking about a new birth of freedom that would come from the events of Gettysburg and Vicksburg that past July 4. By July 4, 1954, we had already experienced on May 17 the Brown v. Board of Education decision, so the walls of segregation began coming down. By July 4, 2007, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are locked in an unprecedented campaign for president of the United States. By July 4, 2008, he’s the presumptive nominee, and by July 4, 2009, I believe the 44th president of the United States. You can’t quite call that the end of black politics. You have to call that the progression and the redevelopment and redefinition of what it means to be an American.
   The third point is that we’re no longer in a race for delegates. Jesse Jackson ran in ’84 and ’88, and he would come in second place in a state, and at the end of a contest, he’d give a speech, where are my delegates? Because the Democratic Party had a winner-take-all scheme—whoever won the state took all the delegates. When Barack Obama ran for president 20 years later, he never had to give a single speech to say, where are my delegates? So our first fight was within the party because the party wasn’t fair. So the historic delegate contest is Jesse Jackson’s contribution to the contest.
   We’re now no longer in a race for delegates—we’re in a race for electoral votes. You need 270 to be president. Well, we can conceivably win California and New York by millions of votes, which could give us the popular vote, but we may squeak a very narrow electoral victory, we may tie or we may lose an electoral victory—like Bush and Gore. Now here’s the problem: America has rationalized the system, that you can get the popular votes, but if I get the electoral votes, I’m president. But the electoral college came by way of insistence by the southern slave states, who were concerned that northern populated states would be able to out-vote them in determining the new president. So at the Constitutional Convention, they demanded the Electoral College.
   Now we’ve never had a problem with it because it’s always been a white male Democrat against a white male Republican, but what happens if by chance, and we pray that it does not, that system stops the first African American from being president. Then the old story’s  going to be told, not the new one, not the one that we rationalized. People are going to say, I never realized that they were trying to protect a certain interest. We’re talking about the end of black politics—is it the end if on Nov. 5 we’re looking at one of these scenarios? So who’s the guy in Congress who sponsored House Joint resolution 36? I’m the lead sponsor of the effort to abolish the Electoral College and to elect the president of the United States by direct popular vote of the people.

So abolishing the Electoral College doesn’t win the popular vote in Congress?
   Of course it’s something people don’t want to talk about. We might be approaching ripeness when the American people say, now wait a minute, in South Africa we demand one man, one vote, in Europe we demand one man, one vote, in Iraq we demand one man, one vote, in Afghanistan one man, one vote, in Venezuela, one man, one vote. How are we going to explain to the American people if Barack Obama gets five million more votes than McCain and isn’t the boss? Back to the topic of black politics, that would throw us right back into the conversation in a major way.

Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago