State Sen. President Emil Jones Jr. (D-14th) and President-elect Barack Obama have been political godfather and godson, respectively for more than two decades, going back to a time when Obama hadn’t expressed an interest in holding political office,
State Sen. President Emil Jones Jr. (D-14th) and President-elect Barack Obama have been political godfather and godson, respectively for more than two decades, going back to a time when Obama hadn’t expressed an interest in holding political office but needed the guiding hand of Jones to make what he wanted to happen.
As a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate, Obama came to Chicago and began working with a church-based organization that dealt with employment and educational issues.
Obama and some group members approached Jones and those discussions led to Jones helping the organization secure funding for a dropout prevention program at Fenger High School. And Jones championed legislation that ultimately created the alternative schools system.
Jones, a member of the Illinois legislature since 1973, is publicly referred to as Obama’s political godfather, but he said it was a tag he was unaware of until 2004 when Obama issued a special thanks at a unity breakfast following statewide elections.
The record is clear, though, how Jones helped orchestrate the young senator’s meteoric political rise.
“Right after I was elected president of the Senate in 2003, I had a conversation with Barack, and he said to me, ‘You are now the president of the Senate and you have a lot of power,’” recalled Jones.
“I asked him what kind of power do you think I have. And he said ‘You have the power to make a U.S. Senator’ and I said, ‘I do?’
“And I said to Barack, if I have that kind of power, do you know anyone I can make a United States Senator? He said ‘Me.’We talked a little longer and I said that sounds good. Let’s go for it. And the rest is history,” Jones said.
Meanwhile, Jones said he had been impressed with Obama from Obama’s earliest days in the State Senate.
“After he (Obama) was elected to the Senate, he said, ‘You know me. I like to work hard so feel free to give me any tough assignments. I will do my best to carry them out and be successful.’”
He said it was an opportunity he didn’t let pass and Obama proved worthy of the challenges he received.
Obama’s penchant for hard work and his ability to connect with people are two of the advantages he brought to the presidential race, Jones said.
Jones said Obama’s willingness to be around people who are not likeminded has served him well, especially when critics questioned the president- elect’s commitment to urban issues and Black people.
“When you run for the U.S. Senate and when you are running for the president of the United States, you cannot always be so narrowly focused,” said Jones. “I told many individuals who may have voiced criticisms that he is not running for president of Black Americans or he is not running for U.S. Senator of Black America. He is running for all people and folks from all sections.
“He wouldn’t let himself get pigeonholed and I don’t blame him. One of the things, regardless of whether you’re Black, white, Hispanic or whatever region you come from, there is commonality among all people, a common thread that runs through all cultures. And that common thread is people want to do the best for their families, their children. They want a decent job and when you address the issues in that context, you touch all people,” Jones said. “They want a decent education for their children, and that’s what brings the folks together.”
Jones vividly recalled one of the people Obama touched during his 2004 campaign. “We were in Southern Illinois in this little town called Gillespie. It was September of 2004 on a Sunday afternoon.
We were at a fish fry and there were about 3,000 people on a farm, and I was sitting at the table eating some fish and a little old white lady said to me, “You know I’m 84 years old. I’ve certainly lived long enough. This young man is going to be president one day, and I want to be around to vote for him.”
Jones said that’s when he knew Obama would someday make a bid for the presidency. He said the only question was whether he would be able to galvanize the support to be successful.
Some of the credit for the Hyde Park resident’s success as the third Black U.S. Senator since Reconstruction had as much to do with the state of Illinois as well as his innate skills. Jones explained, “We have strong political organizations and we take our politics very seriously here in Illinois and we work hard at it, which enables us to be in a position to be very progressive in electing U.S. Senators and other statewide elected officeholders.”
That same political astuteness was put to work against Obama, but the political godfather’s clout stymied talk about him not being the right Senate candidate, Jones noted.
“In the senate race, there was a lot of pushback from a lot of the local Black officials. When I went around to talk to them about Barack, they were asking ‘who is he, what has he done, where does he come from. There was a lot of pushback because they didn’t know him,” said Jones.
“But I insisted. I said he is the candidate, he is the one. Today, nobody is regretting that. Barack has a very, very good analytical mind. It’s like when he approached me for the U.S. Senate. We never discussed it previously, but he had to have analyzed that if he had me as a strong supporter, it would keep the wolves off his back, which would enable him to be able to show what he was all about, and that’s what it took.”
That seat made him a household name in Illinois, but for people outside the state, he was a virtual unknown. Jones chuckled about an incident at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when Obama gave the keynote address.
Jones, a super delegate at that convention, recalled he was on a crowded elevator with other delegates and a woman looked at his Obama pin and said, “I know where you’re from, you’re from Alabama.” Jones said he explained to her the button was for Obama. “He’s our keynote speaker tomorrow.”
He then laughed and said, “After he gave that speech, people were running around trying to get an Obama button. It was that instant impact he had on the folks. They were trying to get Obama material. He was an instant success.”
The retiring senator added that when he and Obama were campaigning together in South Carolina, they discussed the Boston speech and its impact and then talked about the need to win the Iowa caucuses.
Although Iowa has a 90 percent white population, Jones said it was Obama’s victory there that “built confidence amongst the Black voters. When he won Iowa, that showed Black voters he could garner white support. That validated his candidacy for Black people.”
He added there were still some Black leaders who were insisting that Obama address more Black issues, “but you can’t run for the presidency being the Black candidate,” Jones reiterated.
He added that a lot of Black people who doubted Obama’s ability to win were expressing doubt in themselves.
“For the first time we had a real viable candidate that could win. There have been others, but they couldn’t put it all together. Barack has put it all together — able to raise the money, able to get support from all sections of our community, and able to win where others could not win.”
“And during the course of the campaign, there have been those petty jealousies, but Barack has overcome that. There was strong feelings among some nationally.”
Now the focus will shift to Chicago as city residents’ expectations of the president-elect are tied to his home town.
“However in one sense, what it does for young people, especially young African Americans, is the building of their self-esteem. Little kids in grammar school know the name Barack Obama and that makes them want to be all that they can be. Building their self esteem is so important in our society,” Jones said.
He also said that there will be some expectations that things will improve for the city simply because the president is from Chicago.
Jones diffused speculation he is leaving the state senate to take a position in the Obama administration.
He said he doesn’t want to do anything other than possibly serve as his political godson’s adviser.
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