If I were to write an essay about the political landscape in Illinois in 2008, I could call it Paradise Lost: Reclaiming Our Political Dignity.

If I were to write an essay about the political landscape in Illinois in 2008, I could call it Paradise Lost: Reclaiming Our Political Dignity.

I know, I know. That title is loaded with innuendo. But the underlying message is meant to inspire Illinois residents to remain hopeful amid our latest political misfortunes in a year defined mostly by political milestones. I don’t know about you, but I, for one, am not ready to accept that the shiny new nickel Illinois residents were handed on November 4 has been tarnished by allegations of pay-to-play politics in the governor’s office.

Nonetheless, quite abruptly, our hallelujah chorus has fallen silent, interrupted in early December by a rap on the door of the governor, who was led away from his home in handcuffs. Since that time, the allegations of misconduct against him have assured Illinois a place at the top of the news around the country, with a particular focus on Chicago-style racial politics.

By year’s end, the plot had thickened. Accusations flew, and the cast of characters seemed to change almost daily. We’ve become quite the political soap opera. Our dirty business is not only in the street. It’s being aired at a time when the entire world is taking notice of what is happening in President-elect Barack Obama’s home state and city like never before.

Imagine the jaw-dropping disbelief experienced by some of our spectators around the world. Just as residents of this great state and city had hit the world stage running, holding hands and singing Kumbaya, our governor was accused of trying to sell the Senate seat being vacated by our new president-elect for his own personal gain. That’s like being at the party of the year, then the fuse box blows and the lights and music go off. Who wants to hum and dance in the dark? That’s right. Party’s over.

Today, Illinois residents walk beneath a dark, low-hanging cloud. Inauguration day is less than two weeks away, and in the state that produced the nation’s first African American president, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

Yet one redeeming quality remains in the current political maelstrom: To have lost paradise suggests that paradise once was ours. And for a little while, it was. For me, that good feeling started way before a Chicagoan won the presidency on a history-making Election Day.

It began the day I realized that the state of Illinois had a competent contender in the race for America’s highest office that focused on people’s needs, how they were hurting and how he could help make their lives better. He didn’t fall back on the tried and true ways of doing politics; he brought new thinking and new ideas to the table, and hope followed.

It may be too early to predict how this will shake out, but I’d certainly hate to see the political capital this state has built up be squandered overnight.

We have to recapture our political dignity. We have to reclaim that new era of promise and hope that inspired record numbers of people to vote in 2008. We cannot revert back to a cynical attitude about the political process because of these current allegations of corruption in government.

It is a shame that the good feelings we felt on Election Night are, for some, a distant memory. But shame on us if we take the bait and digress back to political kindergarten.

Folks, we’re better than this. The people of this state have elected African-American political leadership before without the circus coming to town (e.g. Harold Washington, Danny Davis, Carol Moseley-Braun, Barack Obama). In the African American community, our political will is strong, and African Americans must have representation in all aspects and in all chambers of government. I’ll shout that from the highest mountain!

But more importantly, we need people at every level of government who will be effective at solving problems, who can deliver on their promises.

I’ll bet that by inauguration day on January 20, we’ll all be feeling a lot better about our worldwide reputation. Meanwhile, it is my fervent hope that this dark chapter in Illinois politics will soon end, that the lights will come back on and that we’ll dance enthusiastically to a different tune.

Cheryle R. Jackson is the president of the Chicago Urban League. She can be reached at president@thechicagourbanleague.org.

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