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Election 2008 Thu Nov 20 2008

More to Jesse Jr. Than Some Think

By all accounts, Cong. Jesse Jackson, Jr. is on the "short list" of possibilities to fill Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for the next two years. Some newspapers and activists have been actively lobbying for Gov. Blagojevich, who has sole discretion in the decision, to appoint Jackson.

With Valerie Jarrett having withdrawn her name from consideration, Jackson is said to be the leading African-American contender for the spot, a not inconsiderable factor given that Obama was the only African-American in the Senate. While there isn't, and shouldn't be, any such thing as a "black seat," and Obama's election itself is sign that some racial barriers are not as high as they once were, a return of the upper house to a body devoid of African-Americans is unsettling to some, with reason.

However, as much as he is an African-American congressman, Jesse Jackson, Jr. is also a smart congressman, and a progressive congressman. He would certainly satisfy Obama's stated criterion that the next senator be someone who has a passion to stand up for working men and women. Jackson was one of those Democrats who initially voted against the financial "bailout" bill, and changed his vote only after lobbying by Obama, who personally assured him that the incoming administration would make further changes to help homeowners and taxpayers.

Ask 50 politicians, activists, and pundits about who the governor will appoint and you can get 50 different theories. Speculation about factors negatively affecting Jackson's chances that I've heard are that "Rahm doesn't like him," or that "the governor doesn't like him," or that national Democratic leaders doubt his ability to carry the state in 2010, when the Obama seat is up for re-election. Suburban and downstate voters, goes this line of reasoning, have a visceral negative reaction to the name "Jesse Jackson" and would not even distinguish Jr. from Sr.

I don't buy it. First let's be real: Despite Illinois' current "blueness," the state is not a lock for any Democrat. Obama did not do as well in Illinois against McCain as he did in his own Senate race. Arguments about weakness in a statewide race, depending on the GOP nominee, could be conjured up with equal force against liberal Cong. Jan Schakowsky; Tammy Duckworth, apparently well-regarded by party leaders but who's never held office and is not associated strongly with issues or constituencies besides veterans; Cong. Danny Davis; and most of the others mentioned, plus many who aren't on the radar but might be very capable. The guilt-by-association-with-your-father argument would be made against Lisa Madigan, who by all accounts has little interest in jetting off to D.C. and has her sights on other state constitutional office, or against comptroller Dan Hynes (gee, we seem to have a lot of family relationships in Illinois politics, don't we?). Probably only Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who did once run for senator from Illinois, has strong statewide brand strength without identifiable negative reaction from Republican voters; if anything, the strongest dislike of Quinn comes from some Democrats he's rankled.

Yet, I see any of the above, and for that matter most any capable Democrat, as also being able to win the now strongly Democratic state -- not certain, but able -- and that applies to Jackson as well. He has undeniably high name recognition, and any well-funded race would offer him plenty of opportunity to differentiate himself.

The "who likes whom" theories don't wash. Emanuel and Blagojevich are successful Democratic politicians, and I doubt this decision will turn on personalities as much as on pragmatism. And the governor praised Jackson in his long press conference on an Obama replacement. Moreover, as strong an argument can be made that even some local politicians who are not in Jackson's fan club would dearly like to see him in the Senate, rather than possibly running for mayor in 2011.

Given the opportunity, Jackson can and would show himself to be more thoughtful and nuanced than some might assume, and capable of some surprises.

I had one such surprise while checking out the congressman's website. Prominent there is a section on the Civil War, and among the "Useful Links" is another section on the Civil War; it appears that Cong. Jackson is a student or at least fan of history (as am I, and, as is, by the way, our governor). Curious to see what Jesse Jackson, Jr. might find interesting about "Robert E. Lee," I clicked that subheading and was surprised to be directed not to any polemics, but to a speech of Lee's, and an essay on losing gracefully and reconciliation -- complete with a background web wallpaper of the confederate Stars and Bars.

Students of more recent history may recall how Carol Moseley-Braun famously challenged Jesse Helms and sought to have the federal patent for the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy removed. By contrast, when Howard Dean was attacked for his reference to the Confederate flag as a symbol of poor Southern whites, who was it who defended Dean? Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Illinois not only fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War, it sacrificed an enormous number of lives in that effort, as a visit to the memorial square of almost any Illinois town will reveal. Certainly Jackson, by framing within his own website the Confederate flag, is not seeking to pander to any Southern audience, or to the hate groups who will hate him no matter what he puts on the Internet. What it does say is that this is a far more complex politician than stereotype would suggest, and one who might prove conventional wisdom wrong from time to time.

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cletus warhol / November 20, 2008 1:53 PM

Jesse Jr. is probably the most viable pick among those who keep being mentioned (aside from Jan Shakowski). The only problem I have with him being appointed is that the whole "Third Airport in Peotone" chestnut would probably be revived. Nonetheless, I could definitely live with him as the choice.

I'm more concerned about who's going to run for Rahm's empty seat, as my favorite candidate amongst the mostly frightening field of possibilities being bandied about, John Cullerton, is going to be the new State Senate President.

Ramsin / November 21, 2008 9:08 AM

I've always thought Jackson's tireless effort to site an airport in Peotone on behalf of his suburban constituents would bode well for his future political ambitions--but Jeff, I'm not getting the connection to the Civil War stuff.

Also, that is the worst website I've seen in the last five years.

rich miller / November 23, 2008 11:20 PM

You make the mistake of believing that the governor is a normal politician. That fatally undermines your thesis.

I'm not willing to say that JJJ is a non-starter, but I believe it's beyond the pale to try to analyze this as if Blagojevich is "pragmatic."

Governors with 13 percent approval ratings, who are universally despised at the Statehouse, who can't get anything big done and are under nine different federal investigations are not "pragmatic."

Jeff SmithAuthor Profile Page / November 24, 2008 7:11 AM

Rich, thanks for the comment. My "thesis" was mainly about Jesse Jackson Jr.; I found it really interesting that the Civil War was so prominent on his website, and that the presentation was not simply judgmental.

As to the governor, I'm not sure what you mean by "normal politician." Do we use the norm for governors in Illinois? :) Is the "norm" for Illinois politicians a good thing considering where Illinois is routinely ranked ethically, or considering our state and local infrastructure, school funding, deficit problems etc. as a group effort?

For that matter, I know a lot of folks who think "normal politician" is an oxymoron. But that's a whole different post.

To the extent you think I am suggesting that the Governor will use some sort of logical process to make a decision, I plead guilty. I think most people try to accomplish their goals, measuring possible decisions against likely outcomes, while weighting values. What we call "irrational" is usually just a different -- sometimes very different -- weighting of values, or probabilities, or both. Truly "irrational" is when emotion, or magical thinking, or arbitrary denial or discounting of data, or similar distortions, derail the thinking process. Of course, those are slippery slopes. Some would argue that all persons of faith are irrational. Or all Cubs fans. :)

By "pragmatic" I was simply observing that you don't get to be governor or White House chief of staff without making a lot of practical calculations along your political career. Being unpredictable in governing does not make him unpragmatic -- some might argue that an element of arbitrariness or surprise works in a politician's favor. Although probably not forever.

Look, I'd hate to see Illinois saddled with some venal or mediocre choice. These are critical times, and I want a senator of intelligence, courage, vision, and passion. I have to hope that the process this admittedly embattled governor uses is not that different than what you or I might do under similar circumstances. As an ordinary citizen, about the only lever I have to promote that ethos is this keyboard.

Perhaps that's magical, irrational thinking on my part. But as I've written elsewhere (and this may be my inner Cubs fan showing), some suspension of disbelief is necessary to sustain our involvement in this system. If we don't continually look for and urge the best in all its participants, from the voters to the top elected officials, we won't get it.

Rich Miller / November 24, 2008 9:28 AM

You also referred to Blagojevich as "successful." I don't get your thinking on any of this, frankly.

Ramsin CanonAuthor Profile Page / November 24, 2008 10:23 AM

Unfortunately, I think Rich is right. Whatever nuances between different choices can be entirely discounted. Governor Blagojevich has proven himself utterly incapable of making decisions with anything but Rube Goldberg-style tortured reasoning. The kind that factors in the strength of a strongly-worded press release towards making a decision a good one.

Jeff SmithAuthor Profile Page / November 24, 2008 11:27 AM

What I'd like to know is what you guys think will be the criteria. Can we agree that it won't be completely random, not some name out of the phone book or a lottery ticket buyer? If so, then we have to agree that there are some criteria. Some factors will govern, no pun intended, the Gov's decision. I hear a lot of these bandied about in private but when pushed, no one has any hard evidence, and no one seems willing to state a lot of these in public.

Also wondering how many folks listened to the approx. 20 minutes the Gov devoted to answering questions on this at his Nov. 5 press conference, available online at the link I've highlighted. Other than the amusing introduction of the concept of "jinxes" to the decisionmaking process, it's pretty smooth and rational, with "normal" political and diplomatic answers being given for the most part.

The next day, on his Facebook (!) page -- see, there are other ways to communicate besides press releases :) -- the Gov. wrote the following:

" goes without saying that our next Senator has big shoes to fill.

Ultimately, this task falls upon my shoulders. Because it’s important that the best person for Illinois is selected, I want to be clear that the calendar won’t dictate our search. Instead, I want to ensure that Obama’s successor will understand and fight for the needs of average Illinoisans.

To give you a low-down, I'm looking for a candidate that will support the President-Elect’s agenda for the people; effectively represent the interests of the state of Illinois in the U.S. Congress; work with the governor’s administration to achieve their shared goals of ensuring access to affordable healthcare, rebuilding Illinois’ infrastructure, improving the economic security and livelihoods of Illinois workers, and caring for our most vulnerable; and prioritize the average Illinoisan who is too burdened by taxes and economic hardship."

Do you think that these will be the actual criteria used? If so, who do you think fits the bill in the Gov's mind? If you think some other unstated, non-public criteria will be determinative, what do you think those are, and who is most likely to fit those?

Ramsin CanonAuthor Profile Page / November 24, 2008 1:09 PM

These are platitude criteria. His criteria will actually be, "How can I make this benefit me?" Except his calculation for what benefits him will be utterly wrong.

Jeff SmithAuthor Profile Page / December 10, 2008 3:54 PM

Ramsin, this was one of the funniest comments I've ever read online, I LOL when I read it. And in retrospect it was brilliant, could not have been more prescient and succinct.

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