The natty emcee, E. Duke McNeil, sauntered to center stage and took the microphone as the choir delivered its jubilant arrangement of "We Shall Overcome." The guest of honor, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., sat stone-faced stage left. Television cameras moved into position, the expectant crowd settled into the pews, and another Saturday morning forum at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters on the South Side was under way, live and on the air worldwide via radio, cable TV, and satellite.
"Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters!" exhorted McNeil, in the beguiling baritone that serves him so well as a criminal defense lawyer. "Don’t touch that dial! The PUSH is on! The PUSH is on! The PUSH is on!"
The appearance of Jesse Jr.-known in these parts simply as "Junior"-certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. He practically grew up at PUSH headquarters, his father being the founder and all. Now that Junior is a 40-year-old congressman, one of the oft-recalled memories is of the time he gave a speech there as a five-year-old standing on a milk crate. But his planned address on this morning carried with it a heightened sense of anticipation: ever since his recent reproach of Mayor Richard M. Daley in the wake of seemingly endless revelations of corruption in the city’s contracting program for women and minorities, speculation had intensified that Jesse Jr. was positioning himself to run for mayor.
It wasn’t the first time Jesse Jr.’s name had been floated as a candidate for the city’s top job. He has always maintained that he simply isn’t interested, but this time his careful denials preserved future options. And why not? His line of attack on Daley and the city council was getting a nice ride. And his PUSH appearance did come with some noticeable trappings of a campaign event. The program was titled "A Call to Action." The speech-as selected members of the media who had received an early copy already knew-not only criticized Daley but laid out the principles upon which Jesse Jr. thought any mayor should govern. And, well, a guy on the corner was handing out blue "Draft Jesse Jr. for Mayor" buttons.
Even Junior’s father had turned up the volume. Before today’s program, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. had promised a group of African American businesspeople that his son would deliver a "major address." Now Jackson the elder was sitting next to Jesse the younger as the choir bounced through the old gospel tune "Sign Me Up." After the singers finished, Reverend Jackson took to the lectern and introduced his namesake and oldest son. Jesse Jr. smiled his big, bright smile for the first time onstage that morning, gave his father a bear hug, and kissed him on the cheek.
After welcoming a few dignitaries, Jesse Jr. looked out at the crowd and said, "I got set up today!" His deep, hearty laugh-a guffaw, if you will-was joined by cheers and giggles from the crowd. "Reverend Jackson asked me to come and speak during Black History Month on the legacy of Harold Washington, and I got all excited about it, came here, and saw people passing out ‘Draft Junior’ buttons!"
"Do it!" rose a shout from the crowd.
As he turned to his text-entitled "What Does a Shining City on a Hill Look Like? The Legacy of Mayor Harold Washington"-the congressman’s visage and voice became serious and purposeful. An artful speaker, Jesse Jr. started low and slow, taking only five minutes to arrive at his chief cause: the proposed Abraham Lincoln National Airport in the town of Peotone, 50 miles southwest of Chicago. "‘Congressman Jackson, all you want to do is talk about airports!’" he mimicked in the growly voice of a skeptic. "Friends, I have studied Chicago. I know what makes Chicago work!"
"Break it down, brother!" a woman in the second row called out.
Jesse Jr. then moved through a quick history lesson of Chicago’s inequities before paying tribute to Harold Washington as mayor, noting, "He did not believe or practice an ethic that ‘my side of town gets all of the contracts!’"
"Doin’ good!" came a voice from the assenting crowd.
"Preach it!" said another.
Jesse Jr. then teasingly recalled the conditions that Congressman Harold Washington laid down to his supporters before he would agree to run for mayor, including a $250,000 campaign bankroll and 50,000 newly registered voters. "That was 1983," Jesse Jr. noted coyly. "Have to adjust all that for inflation!"
* * *
Photograph by Matthew Gilson
Jesse Jr. and his siblings have carved out lives both in and out of their father’s long shadow. Here’s what the congressman’s brothers and sisters are up to.
A former backup singer for Roberta Flack, Santita Jackson, 44, produces her father’s radio show, “Keep Hope Alive,” heard around the country (locally on WGCI–1390 AM).
As a part owner of a lucrative local Anheuser-Busch distributorship (which he owns with his brother Yusef) and as a wide-ranging entrepreneur, Jonathan Jackson, 39, is putting his Northwestern MBA to good use.
The president and majority owner of River North Sales & Service (the beer distributorship he owns with his brother Jonathan), Yusef Jackson, 34, earned a law degree from the University of Virginia and formerly worked at Mayer, Brown & Platt.
Jacqueline Jackson, 29, earned a degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, and is now pursuing graduate studies.
Ever since 1995-when Jesse Louis Jackson Jr. defeated the Daley-backed candidate, state senate minority leader (now senate president) Emil Jones Jr., in the congressional race to replace a discredited Mel Reynolds-the local punditry has regularly speculated about whether Jackson would run for mayor. A few months after Jackson took office, Illinois Issues magazine asked, "Could this guy beat Mayor Richard M. Daley some day?"
But Jackson appeared to have other aspirations, saying during his first campaign that he would like to stick around Congress long enough to become the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (à la Dan Rostenkowski) or the first African American Speaker of the House.
The national press took it a step further. "Jesse the Younger appears poised to launch a national political dynasty," wrote The Los Angeles Times before nominee Jackson had even won the general election. "He’s a hit in Congress," claimed Newsweek one year into Junior’s congressional career. "Will he be the first black president?"
Jackson is used to this kind of speculation. "All of my life I have had people who have had extremely high expectations of me," he said in a segment of The History Makers, an oral archive of African American history. "Oftentimes their expectations were higher of me than my own expectations were of myself."
He seems almost relieved-not jealous, as he’s been depicted in some news reports-that Barack Obama is now the media darling when it comes to the first black president. "[The Obamas] are truly the First Family of our state, and if we keep the faith and keep hope alive," he told the Chicago Tribune, "they will be the First Family of the United States."
In the meantime, Jackson is still fighting for his airport, and that is what has really put him so at odds with Daley. For Jackson, the airport is nothing more-or less-than a means to an end: building an economic engine big enough to transform the South Side into a mirror image of the North Side.
Once that’s done, Jackson would like to improve the entire country, beginning with nine amendments to the Constitution that would guarantee the right to health care and a good education, among other things. And then? According to his top aide, Frank Watkins, Jackson sometimes says jokingly, "I want to be on Mount Rushmore."
* * *
As 2005 began, scandals linked to city hall seemed to monopolize the headlines. Revelations relating to Chicago’s flawed Hired-Truck Program were emerging on a nearly daily basis, while James Duff, a big fundraiser for Mayor Daley, was preparing to plead guilty to 33 counts of fraud and other charges stemming from his assertion that his companies were controlled by women and minorities.
Jackson came out swinging in early January on the radio show "Don Wade & Roma" on WLS-AM. "It is time for people to stand up for good government in the city of Chicago," Jackson declared. "It is time for people to stand up for fairness." In a press release a little more than a week later, he placed some of the blame for the scandals in the minority set-aside program on the Chicago city council: "They should be demanding and holding hearings to clean up the stench surrounding Mayor Daley’s affirmative action program." A few days later, Jackson told reporters: "It’s hard to believe a mayor who is all-knowing and all-powerful in Chicago has no knowledge of what one of his vital programs is doing."
By that time, other members of the Illinois congressional delegation had reportedly begun discussing whether Jackson was preparing a mayoral run; Jackson insisted he was not. And while Daley didn’t respond to Jackson, several angry aldermen did. "He doesn’t want to be mayor; he wants to be king," complained Isaac Carothers, a West Side African American alderman who had faced a Jackson-backed challenger in the last election. South Side alderman William Beavers called Jackson a "Johnny-come-lately." But the black caucuses of the city council, state senate, and state house soon joined forces and called for hearings on the minority contracting program.
About a month later, on a tour of his district, Jackson seems amused-though annoyed-by the whole thing. "All I did was write a press release about affirmative action," he claims. "I didn’t say anything. Now I’ve become a mayoral candidate!"
Whatever his intentions, though, Jackson didn’t do it lightly. "He’s a master strategist," says his friend Martin King, the chairman of the board of trustees of Rainbow PUSH (and no relation to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). "Nothing is done haphazardly or off-the-cuff."
* * *
We were somewhere near the edge of Peotone when the drugs began to take hold. At least that’s what Rick Bryant, Jackson’s district administrator, tried to pretend when his boss launched into a series of hilarious-and dead-on-imitations of Illinois pols. "That’s off the record!" Bryant interceded from the back seat of Jackson’s congressional-plated black SUV, trying to protect his boss from himself. "That’s the drugs talking!" Jackson was on painkillers for a back he wrenched trying to do some home plumbing-but after the laughter subsided Bryant warned his boss, "Don’t personalize it!"
At times like this, it’s hard not to like Jackson. His round face is almost cherubic, and his body reveals some of the softness of the ex-athlete (though he recently did drop more than 40 pounds). Given his hobbies-hunting, fishing, and model railroading-Jackson could almost pass for a brainy good ol’ boy.
Jackson’s district tour, which he has been giving to reporters for years, is equal parts public policy seminar, history lesson, standup comedy routine, and buddy road trip. Throughout, he is relentlessly on message, having repeated the same shtick for ten years both out loud and in his writings.
The tour had convened at Jackson’s South Shore home, a modest brick affair near the South Shore Cultural Center and about 100 yards from Lake Michigan. It is a cozy home with humble furnishings, but the truth is that Jackson has essentially moved his family-his 42-year-old wife, Sandi (a lawyer), and his two kids, Jessica, five, and two-year-old Jesse III-to a home in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.
The South Shore house, though, is hardly devoid of life. Upon entering the basement, Jackson announced, "This is ‘Jackson for Congress!’" And there, crammed amid scattered pieces of weightlifting equipment and a washer and dryer, was a campaign war room: computers, an insert mailer, paper folding machines, a post-card machine, and three television screens, each tuned to a different network.
Jackson, a stickler for organization in a way his father never has been, is credited with bringing modern technology to the Rainbow Coalition while he worked there as national field director. He bought the same computer system, able to catalog reams of demographic and voting information about his would-be constituents, for his first campaign. Jackson has also run the campaigns of other South Side politicians out of his basement-including those of state senator James Meeks and state representatives David Miller and William Davis. His team, says Jackson, has won 13 elections without a loss.
* * *
"I hope you make that mayoral race," a customer tells Jackson within minutes of our arrival at breakfast-first stop on the tour-at the L&G Family Restaurant, 75th and Exchange. "You look just like your father," another says. It is the day before Jackson’s PUSH speech, which he is carrying in the pocket of his coat. "I should be working the tables," he says, eyeing all those potential voters almost wistfully. But his wrenched back has the best of him. He settles delicately into a booth and orders grits, which he barely touches.
"So this is the Rand McNally Chicago EasyFinder map," Jackson says, unfolding a laminated map that is one of his favorite props. "[This is] the map that’s available at most tourist locations around the city of Chicago. When you open it up, you see the northwest suburbs in it, most of the city of Chicago, many of the southwest suburbs, but the map itself stops at 55th Street, at the Museum of Science and Industry, the University of Chicago. In other words, the service-based economy doesn’t venture beyond 55th Street. We simply cannot be players in the regional economy until the service economy ventures south of the Museum of Science and Industry."
Jackson wants to put the South Side and its suburbs on that EasyFinder map, and he thinks the airport is the best way to do it. (Jackson’s own Second Congressional District stretches south from about 50th Street, following the lakefront to the city limits, before expanding toward the southwest to include a number of suburbs, including Evergreen Park, Riverdale, Dolton, Harvey, Chicago Heights, Matteson, and Park Forest.) In fact, Jackson says, the city’s airport capacity crisis presents a unique opportunity to address the region’s economic imbalance. By Jackson’s accounting, building an airport in the south suburbs could be a silver bullet, spurring development, lowering property taxes, increasing property values, and providing more school funding-thereby reviving impoverished city neighborhoods and down-and-out suburbs. And Jackson’s plan would be privately funded to boot. It’s a bold position, one that has set him in opposition to establishment Democrats, most notably Richard M. Daley.
Why is Daley so opposed? It’s tough to tell, given that his position on Peotone-or any new airport-has changed so many times over the years. Like some members of the local business community, the mayor likely is worried about any negative economic impact on the city resulting from an even slightly diminished O’Hare. But a new airport also represents a potential threat to his own power and political strength-which is Jackson’s take on Daley’s recalcitrance. "Under the old Democratic model of graft, jobs, contracts, friends, the city [would have] no jurisdiction," Jackson says. "Can’t have that now."
* * *
Jesse Jr. was almost named Selma, after the Alabama town where his father was demonstrating when he learned that his son had been born. Instead, the rambunctious Junior became known as "Fella." "That was kind of short for ‘the meanest and the orneriest fellow you ever met,’" says Frank Watkins. Tests showed that Jesse Jr. was smart, but hyperactive, so his parents sent him and his brother Jonathan to the LeMans Military Academy, a school near South Bend, Indiana, that was run by the Brothers of Holy Cross. "The idea of wearing a uniform, getting promoted, and being in charge of something was a big thrill," Jesse Jr. wrote in A More Perfect Union, his 2001 book that is part memoir, part manifesto. "But ‘Fella’ kept showing up. I received numerous demerits and became a regular visitor to the principal’s office-often to be paddled for conduct unbecoming a cadet." Today, Jesse Jr. credits LeMans, no longer in existence, with instilling discipline in him.
As Jesse Sr. increasingly spent more time in Washington, D.C., his wife, Jacqueline, wanted her boys to spend more time with their father. She decided to send Jesse Jr. and Jonathan to St. Albans, the exclusive private Episcopalian boys’ school in Washington, D.C., where many sons of the political elite go to high school (Al Gore and John Kerry both attended St. Albans). Jonathan preferred to stay home and attend Whitney Young, the top-ranked Chicago magnet high school, but Jesse Jr. jumped at the chance to go to St. Albans-though he later acknowledged that, academically, he did just enough to get by. "My real education at the school came from being around people who knew more and had been exposed to more than I had," he wrote in A More Perfect Union. "Of course, my impulse to be ‘Fella’ could not be denied just because this was St. Albans. My brother Yusef, who later attended the school, recently told me that virtually all of the rules in the dorm . . . had been rewritten. And the dorm master asked Yusef, ‘Do you want to know why? Because of your brother Jesse.’"
Reverend Jackson, in the midst of his 1984 presidential campaign, gave the commencement address at Jesse Jr.’s graduation. Jesse Jr. was designated by his classmates to carry on a St. Albans tradition and give something "silly" to the headmaster upon receiving his diploma. Junior pressed an egg into the headmaster’s hand.
But Junior was not without smarts. "He is a political animal of the first order," an assistant headmaster told The Washington Post, which covered the address. "[He is] a solid student with a deep interest in history. He writes well, but he speaks superbly."
Today, Jesse Jr. says he would like his son to attend St. Albans, even as he acknowledges that he performed better there athletically than academically. A fleet-footed running back (at 5 feet 11, 177 pounds), Jesse Jr. rushed for 889 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in nine games during his senior year.
Following St. Albans, Jackson chose (or, by one Washington Post account, was ordered by his parents) to attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in Greensboro, where his father had played quarterback, earned a sociology degree, won the student body presidency, and met his future wife. The university is a predominantly black college, and seeing African Americans in leadership positions made an impression on Jesse Jr. "[We] didn’t have to fight the power; we were the power," he wrote in A More Perfect Union.
Jesse Jr. helped organize a campus protest group, Students United for a Free South Africa, and he got involved in voter registration efforts. He also buckled down academically, graduating magna cum laude with a business management degree in three years. "‘Fella’ was gone," as Junior put it in A More Perfect Union.
Again, Reverend Jackson veered off the presidential campaign trail, this time in 1988, to give the commencement speech to his son’s graduating class. And then Jesse Jr. joined his father’s campaign.
* * *
The Jackson kids, of course, grew up with celebrities traipsing through their house, including Jackie Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali, and Bill Cosby. "My mother let Michael Jackson write on the wall," Jesse Jr. says. (He wrote: "To the Jackson family, with much love and respect, Michael Joe Jackson.")
Sometimes the kids accompanied their father on his ventures-including hostage rescue missions to Syria, Cuba, and Yugoslavia-but they were largely kept out of the spotlight until the 1988 Democratic National Convention, in Atlanta. There, in front of a national television audience, all five of the Jackson children joined their father on the stage. Jesse Jr.’s poised and eloquent introduction of his father was so well received (Time called him a "compelling presence") that requests for him to speak on college campuses and elsewhere poured in.
Jackson, though, was still unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. "[My father] told me about the idea of a seminary education, to give me an opportunity to kind of find myself," says Jackson. "So I said, ‘OK; I’ll give it a shot.’ I went over and met with Dr. Kenneth Smith [then president of the Chicago Theological Seminary], and I expressed my case for wanting to be in the ministry." Jackson ended up enrolling at the Hyde Park–based seminary. "I was really being challenged to think critically, and to raise questions," he says. "In my own mind’s eye, God became a God of the oppressed, and not a God of the status quo, at the seminary. For that matter, he became a person of color."
Though Jackson earned his master’s degree in theology in two years rather than the usual three, he chose not to be ordained. "I’m still pursuing some [spiritual] questions that I want answered," he says. "I did not want to put myself out there as a reverend, knowing that I had my own personal shortcomings to deal with." Still, Jackson is now on the seminary’s board of trustees.
Likewise, Jackson attended law school with no intention of becoming a lawyer. His future wife, Sandi Stevens (whom he married in 1991), was in law school at Georgetown when he persuaded her to transfer to the University of Illinois and get her law degree there with him. Jackson finished his coursework half a year early, but he never took the bar exam. He was still preparing for whatever public service role lay ahead. "[If] I didn’t have certain accomplishments at age 30, the press and so many others would be saying, ‘The kid’s unqualified; what the hell’s he been doing?’" Jesse Jr. told Chicago in 1996. "I saw in ’84 and ’88 what people did to my father by saying he was unqualified. So I said if I ever ran for public office, they would never hold that over my head."
* * *
Running for Congress was Sandi’s idea. The couple were living in Washington, D.C., at the time-where Jesse Jr. had taken a job as the national field director for Rainbow PUSH-and neither of them was terribly impressed with the Second District incumbent, Mel Reynolds. Sandi suggested Jesse Jr. challenge Reynolds in the 1996 primary. Reverend Jackson was against it. "He didn’t think I was ready for it," Jesse Jr. says. "And my mother wasn’t very supportive, initially." Sometime in 1994, Jackson had taken the idea to Frank Watkins, the longtime press secretary and political director for Reverend Jackson who now works for Junior. "I ran some numbers and did some [research] and came back and said, ‘Yeah, I think we could [win],’" Watkins recalls. For about a year, Jackson took drives around the district with Martin King a couple of days a week to familiarize himself with the territory. And then he broached the idea of running to David Wilhelm, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had returned home to Chicago. "I wouldn’t waste a name like yours on anything smaller than Congress," Wilhelm told him.
Reverend Jackson still had to be convinced. One day Jesse Jr. arrived at his father’s house to find state senator Alice Palmer in the living room. "He had called her over," says Jesse Jr. "He was trying to work out some kind of deal where we supported Alice for Congress and she supported me for her [state senate] seat. I didn’t agree with that!"
The congressional campaign came sooner than anyone expected. By October 1995, Reynolds was in prison for having had sex with an underage campaign volunteer, necessitating a special election. "Jesse was not prepared emotionally, financially, and every other way to run for Congress," Watkins says, "but I told him this was his best chance. So we just took a chance on it."
Once Reverend Jackson got on board, the big-name contributors fell in line, from sitting congressmen such as John Conyers and Charles Rangel, to celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Johnnie Cochran. About 60 percent of Jackson’s campaign contributions came from out of state.
Jackson’s opponents were bitter. "If he was named Jesse Smith, he wouldn’t even be a blip on the screen," said Emil Jones Jr., who had been endorsed by the party and backed by Daley. State representative Monique Davis also saw Reverend Jackson at work. "Can you live through your son?" she asked. "I believe in America you do things for yourself." Alice Palmer said she offered "leadership that’s proven, not promised."
Few knew then what a meticulous organizer Jackson was. "The other side thought, ‘Well, Jesse [Jr.] will draw all the big crowds and so forth, but he won’t have the organization to do it,’" says Watkins. With a state-of-the-art computer system, the Jackson organization proved the naysayers wrong, and the candidate did well in the community debates and the one televised debate.
The results had a ripple effect. "[Palmer] expected to win, and she was supporting someone for her state senate seat-Barack Obama," Jesse Jr. says. "The rest is history. We beat Alice in the race for Congress, she tried to take her senate seat back, Barack challenged her petitions, knocked her off the ballot, and Barack went to the state senate and I went to Congress."
Jackson finished with 48 percent of the vote. Emil Jones came in second with 39 percent of the vote-no one has come even remotely as close to defeating Jackson since. Jackson easily beat Republican T. J. Somer in the general election. When President Bill Clinton called to offer his congratulations, Jackson lobbied the President for his airport.
* * *
Within minutes of Jackson’s being sworn in by Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House who had been the target of much of the candidate’s campaign rhetoric, the Southwest Side congressman Bill Lipinski shook Jackson’s hand and welcomed him to the House. "Young man," said Lipinski, dean of the Illinois Democratic delegation, "I could be very helpful to you in Congress, but I want to tell you something right now: You’re never going to get that airport." Lipinski, whose Third District included Midway Airport, then blocked Jackson from gaining a seat on the Transportation Committee. He ended up on the Banking Committee instead. (Today Jackson serves on the Appropriations Committee, a much-sought-after assignment.)
Jackson’s congressional career has been more about bringing home the bacon than about passing legislation (which is tough when you are in the minority party) and/or moving up in the party machinery (which requires more fundraising than he has a taste for). "He’s a very hardworking man," says Paul Green, the director of the School of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University. "He’s been pretty active and pretty visible in his district," says Laura Washington, a Sun-Times columnist and professor at DePaul University. "He has a general voting record like all of the Chicago Democrats: liberal," says the former alderman Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And in a recent op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, the author, essayist, and literary critic Joseph Epstein wrote that Jackson did "a fair impression of a serious politician."
For someone as passionate about issues such as African trade, health care, and the federal budget, someone who dreams about amending the Constitution, Jackson is surprisingly well versed in on-the-ground details in his district. In fact, he is a bit of an infrastructure nerd, and no district may need that more than Illinois’ Second Congressional District. "We want to build things," he says, citing his efforts to bring fresh water and flood relief to Ford Heights and to replace several "temporary" 75-year-old Metra stations. "If I get infrastructure, we’ll need fewer social service agencies."
His bigger ideas are still works in progress. He is supporting a Native American–owned casino in Lynwood, for example. "Of course, there are those who would argue the South Side doesn’t need another bad habit," he says. "I’m not an advocate of gambling, but the positive impacts of a casino, the revenue, are just undeniable."
Another location ripe for a casino, he says, is the 573-acre property on the lakefront between 79th and 91st streets that was once home to the U.S. Steel South Works plant. Jackson previously tried to land a new Bears stadium or a movie lot for the site. (It’s not big enough for an airport.) Such a site, Jackson contends, would never have sat vacant for 13 years on the North Side.
Upon seeing the site in person, it’s hard not to agree with him. "One hundred thousand people could live on this site, in terms of condos and developments," he says. "Well, 100,000 people would redraw every congressional district in the state. There are two wards here! It shifts the politics of this town. You’d have to draw these wards, redraw the state senate districts, the state representative districts. It changes everybody’s lives, and nobody wants their life changed."
* * *
"This is the Dixie Square Mall," he announces, pulling into a parking lot in Harvey, the next stop on his district tour. "This mall has not been the same since Jake and Elwood Blues drove through it on a mission from God to get to an orphanage in downtown Chicago. That was the last time anything ever happened here."
The mall looks as if it had been struck by a tornado-multiple times. "I don’t think we should drive in there," Bryant says, as Jackson maneuvers the SUV down the mall’s onetime concourse, debris crackling under his tires. There is still a patchwork roof overhead. "This mall didn’t die because the roof collapsed," Jackson says. "It died for want of someone shopping in it. This mall has collapsed and failed because the service-based economy has not made it to Harvey yet."
That’s why, for Jackson, the mall is really about the airport. "People [won’t be] flying to the Abraham Lincoln airport because they want to get to Peotone," he says. "People [will be] flying into Abraham Lincoln because they can’t get into [O’Hare]. I want them to fly into this airport to get them to drive through Harvey to get to Chicago. And when it comes to Harvey, I want to shake them down at my mall," he says with a laugh. And for Jackson, the only way to make that particular dream a reality is to land the airport.
* * *
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."