Jackson Jr.’s political demise quickens search for fresh faces in black leadership
by DAN MIHALOPOULOS Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org November 23, 2012 12:10AM
Updated: December 24, 2012 7:28AM
Before scandal would shatter his grand ambitions, when he was still a Democratic congressman and the heir apparent to one of Chicago’s most prominent political dynasties, Jesse Jackson Jr. did not shy from criticizing other politicians with heavy baggage.
“We need to start with a serious reform of ethics in Chicago,” he said in 2006, as he very publicly flirted with the notion of challenging then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. “Beneath all of the beautiful flowers in our city, there is so much dirt.”
As federal investigators dug into his conduct, Jackson resigned from Congress on Wednesday. The end of his once-promising career left Chicago’s black political scene with a void: Who can claim not only the fallen reformer’s spot in Washington, but also become the avatar for a new generation and style of African-American leadership here?
Jackson’s demise means virtually all of the highest-ranking black politicians are senior citizens. The 48-year-old Jackson was one of three black congressmen in the Illinois delegation, but by far the youngest: Danny Davis is 71 and Bobby Rush is 66.
The most powerful African-American in local government, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, is 65, while Secretary of State Jesse White — the only black state-wide office holder — is 78.
The younger Jackson’s resignation, combined with the aging of many other African-American elected officials, is hastening the search for fresh faces who might restore or even enhance the community’s clout. Younger African-American leaders in lower-level positions said they believe a new generation is ready to come of age.
“I think you’ll see something new,” said Kwame Raoul, 48, who replaced Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate after Obama became a U.S. senator eight years ago. “You will begin to see, as a result of the rapid rise of Obama, more and more African-American candidates who have crossover appeal and come from different professional backgrounds than we’ve historically seen.”
As a son of immigrants from Haiti, Raoul noted that he, like Obama, did not begin his career with the advantage of a surname steeped in local politics. Although he ruled out running to replace Jackson in the special election in a few months, Raoul said he believes the opening will draw the attention of “quality people who were not necessarily from a machine.”
“This opportunity will stir up discussion and desire among many young would-be candidates,” he said, adding that there exists the danger of the race becoming a free for all that will divide black leaders.
The effort to unite behind one candidate to replace the retiring Daley in last year’s mayoral election became “a joke,” Raoul said.
Those farcical attempts to anoint a black consensus candidate for mayor were just the latest sign of the long decline in black political power in Chicago.
A generation ago, the cavernous old South Side synagogue that serves as the national headquarters for Jackson Sr.’s Rainbow/PUSH civil-rights group was the epicenter of the movement that swept Harold Washington into office as Chicago’s first black mayor.
On any given Saturday morning now, the weekly meetings of Rainbow/PUSH attract only about 100 people. Many of them are grayer and far more frail than the event’s barrel-chested emcee, the 71-year-old Jackson Sr. The former presidential candidate’s remarks often focus more on national than local or state affairs.
“Most of the old black civil-rights organizations are ineffective and irrelevant at this point,” said Democratic political consultant and radio-show host Maze Jackson (who is not related to the congressman and his father). “A lot of the elected officials also play to the victimization component of the black population, and Jesse Jackson Jr. was no different.”
He added that there are many potential candidates in the election for Jackson’s abandoned seat who take a different approach.
“The future of black politics is bright, actually,” Maze Jackson said. “You’ll see a new generation of black politicians with new, innovative thought processes. The old generation looked to protect the safety net as a way to empowerment. The new generation is more interested in banking, finance, utilities — things that can be impactful for the long-term.”
With the weakening of most old-line Democratic organizations across the city, Maze Jackson said the group that seems poised to try to fill the vacuum is the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU, which has many black members, showed its organizational strength during the recent teachers’ strike.
What appears unlikely to many observers is that a relative of Jackson Jr. will succeed him or otherwise come to exert the sort of influence his father enjoyed.
“As far as the broader family legacy, I would say this is a pretty big scar,” veteran Democratic campaign consultant Eric Adelstein said. “It’s very hard to see how that Jackson political legacy is sustained by this generation, given all that’s happened.”