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Ah, the airport. For decades city leaders have debated the merits of a new airport, be it Richard J. Daley’s proposal to build one on a Lake Michigan landfill, or Richard M. Daley’s proposal to build one on a Lake Calumet landfill. When Governor Jim Edgar decided in 1992 to support a new airport in Peotone, a reporter and a photographer from the Tribune got into a cab on North Michigan Avenue and said something like, “Take us to Peotone. And step on it.” The drive took 55 minutes, about the same as a trip to O’Hare. And to those who argued that the south suburban site was just too far-well, it was no farther for people living on the South Side than O’Hare was for those living on the North Side.
That is one of many well-rehearsed points that Jackson makes when his district tour lands in Peotone. “Now I’m going to take you to the terminal,” he says, describing a facility that isn’t yet there. “All of this is the airport,” he says, looking over 4,200 acres of farmland. “And that’s the second runway,” he says, pointing toward oblivion.
While the Peotone airport may have seemed dead on arrival when first proposed, and while it has certainly been on life support over the years, it has been endorsed by Governors Edgar and Ryan, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago and its Metropolis 2020 program, the Metropolitan Planning Council, the editorial pages of the Tribune and the Sun-Times-in short, every civic planning interest except one: Richard M. Daley.
Now Governor Rod Blagojevich is putting his administration behind the plan. At this year’s State of the State address, Blagojevich announced his unequivocal support for the airport-and he invited Jackson and his father to sit in the front row during his speech. The Blagojevich administration intends to submit Jackson’s plan to the Federal Aviation Administration this spring, and the agency is expected to complete an environmental impact study by the end of the year. Ultimately, the FAA will decide whether the project can move ahead.
As the FAA ponders its decision, others are left to try to fathom Daley’s position, which has been all over the map. After his proposed Lake Calumet airport was rejected by the state senate in 1992, the mayor decided the region no longer needed a third major airport, and he focused on solving the region’s airport congestion by investing in O’Hare and Midway. In 1995, to stave off a Republican proposal to form a state or regional airport authority that would include Peotone airport, Daley secretly negotiated a pact with officials at the airport in Gary, Indiana, sending millions of dollars in Chicago money to build up that facility. (Today it is known as the Gary-Chicago International Airport; in March, the FAA approved a $90-million expansion there.) Because the pact placed Chicago’s airports under a bi-state agency, they were no longer susceptible to any new state or regional authority.
But things didn’t end there. In 2001, Daley negotiated with George Ryan, winning the governor’s support for expansion at O’Hare in return for the mayor’s ostensible support of Peotone-and possibly allowing Meigs Field to remain open another 25 years. But after the U.S. Senate refused to lock in O’Hare expansion plans under federal law, Daley reneged on his agreement with Ryan, shut down Meigs, and backtracked again on Peotone.
As Jackson sees it, one of Daley’s chief concerns has been about losing federal money to Peotone that would otherwise go to O’Hare-which the city runs. But Jackson’s plan calls for private funding of the airport, what he says will be a new model for building airports in the United States.
Jackson says he has met twice with Daley about the airport. “I’ve never let the press know we’re meeting, because I wanted to be reasonable, man to man,” Jackson says. “When the [Peotone] airport was first talked about, there was no O’Hare expansion agenda on the table. The O’Hare expansion and modernization debate is five years old. I’ve been in Congress ten years. Governor Edgar came up with the idea of looking into this field out here. That’s the first time the mayor dropped his support of any third airport. Now the [proposed] airport is outside the city of Chicago, [and the mayor] has done everything he can at the federal level to [stop] a third airport.”
In the past, Jackson has praised Daley’s stewardship of the city, but at this point he can’t get past what he sees as rank injustice and hypocrisy. “I can’t get my constituents into the minority set-aside program in Chicago because of your friends, and now you’re going to say who gets a job out here?” he says, referring to Daley. “That’s crazy. So my constituents are between a rock and a hard place. They can’t get jobs downtown, they can’t get into the set-aside program, and the mayor has his foot on thousands of jobs that south suburbanites need. So what do you do, sit around and wait as he gets every deal that comes his way? It’s always on his terms. I respect the man, but I’m not into political figure worship. He’s not always right; he’s not always wrong. But he’s definitely not always right.”
A week after his PUSH speech, Jackson was back at the organization’s headquarters by popular demand-and to satisfy those television watchers who didn’t get to see the ending because the show ran over and was cut off. Talk about a cliffhanger. It wasn’t until minutes from the end of his speech that Jackson announced his intentions. “I am not a candidate for mayor,” he told his audience. “I have no plans to run for mayor. I only have plans to run for Congress in 2006.”
But the punditocracy persisted. “Whatever you say, Congressman,” the columnist Laura Washington pointed out afterward. “You can drive a city tow truck through the holes in that statement.”
Jackson added a new twist in his second PUSH speech. When once again recalling the conditions Harold Washington had laid down before agreeing to run-$250,000 in the bank and 50,000 new names on the voter rolls-Jackson didn’t leave it to his audience to figure out how those figures would translate for a serious candidate in 2007. A hundred thousand newly registered voters, Jackson said. And $4 million.
A week later, the conservative commentator Tom Roeser penned the first of two consecutive Sun-Times columns about Jackson, the first under the headline “How Young Jackson Could Become Mayor.” Laura Washington ended her February 28th column with the appeal “Run Jesse run.”
So whether Junior likes it or not, the push is on. Never mind that Jackson has other ideas. “I can’t build a more perfect Union from the Second Congressional District of Illinois,” he says. “I can file the legislation, but at some point the case has to be made to the American people. I know that case very well.”
That does indeed sound like a campaign declaration, but for President, not mayor. True to form, Jackson says little more concerning all the speculation about his future, insisting only that he is still young and that he won’t rule anything out. And one more thing. “I want,” he says, “to be a founding father.”