With their party just six seats short of regaining control of the House, most Congressional Democrats have a hard time talking these days about anything but candidate recruitment, marginal districts and the by-any-means-necessary fight to regain the powerful committee chairs, grand appropriations budgets and corner offices that were surrendered six years ago to Newt Gingrich’s Republican minions.
“Take back the House” is not so much a slogan as it is a mantra.
But one of the most prominent Democrats in the House does not chant in unison. Rather, he asks difficult questions about whether the premise upon which the mantra is based–that restoring the House to Democratic control will necessarily move the nation in a progressive direction–might be flawed.
“Suppose the Democrats take back the House by a handful of seats, suppose the Democratic majority, come January, is two or three or four seats, what is that going to mean?” asks Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., his voice taking on the deep, emphatic tone of a man who is about to make a point he does not want lost on his listener. “I’ll tell you what it will mean: Conservatives in both parties will still run things. And fundamental reform, fundamental change, will be stymied by that old coalition of conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats.”
Don’t get Jackson wrong. The 35-year-old Chicago Democrat, who arrived in Washington during the first year of Newt Gingrich’s speakership, has spent his entire Congressional career mounting fierce rearguard actions against Republican “reforms”–and Democratic compromises–that he sees as assaults on the poor and working-class communities he proudly champions. With a coveted Appropriations Committee seat, a name that makes him news and the organizing skills and boundless energy of a man who has been “political” since the day he was born, Jackson is more than ready to flex some majority muscle.
As one of the most sought-after surrogates on the campaign trail–Jackson gets daily requests to appear for other Democrats–he will do his part to help elect candidates who need the fundraising, base-building, profile-raising assistance of a handsome young Congressman who, in the words of Senator Paul Wellstone, “gets grassroots Democrats fired up just by walking through the door.”
But in a Congress where “Blue Dog” Southern Democrats and their only slightly more moderate “New Dog” colleagues have already signaled that a narrowly Democratic House will dream no big dreams and take no great leaps, Jackson suggests that winning a few more marginal districts will result, at best, in marginal change. As one who has clashed with President Clinton, the House Democratic leadership and older members of the Congressional Black Caucus when he feels they have strayed from progressive principles, Jackson desires but does not romanticize a Democratic majority. “We have a pattern in place where these New Democrats win by a slim majority and come to Congress and justify economically conservative votes on the basis that they’ve got to win the next election,” says Jackson, grimacing at the image he has just painted. This constant compromising on matters of principle is, Jackson offers, “the very root of the cynicism that does untold damage to our democracy.”
At a time when Democrats are bending every effort to forge an image of unity, the man with perhaps the most identifiable name in the party’s House caucus is cracking the facade. He’s talking about serious ideological differences among Democrats and about the barriers to meaningful reform those differences could impose upon a narrow Democratic majority. And he is doing so with the same confidence of his progressive convictions that, five years into his Congressional career, has earned Jesse Jackson Jr. a reputation as the rare Democratic pol for whom ideology and practical results mean a good deal more than partisanship and positioning.
Jackson has always played the game of politics as if it mattered. This is the man who was the most fiercely loyal of his father’s lieutenants during the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns and who, to a far greater extent than the candidate himself, recalls the names of Democrats who let those campaigns down. This is the man who took on the still-powerful Democratic machine to win an open House seat from Chicago in 1995 and who continues to feud with Mayor Richard Daley and much of the political structure in that city–going so far as to refuse to endorse the Democratic nominee for governor of Illinois in 1998 and endorsing Daley’s challenger in the 1999 Democratic primary.
And this is the man who, upon his arrival in Washington, proceeded to condemn the Clinton Administration for advancing punitive welfare reforms and a balanced-budget agreement that squeezed programs for the poor, who attacked Clinton’s 1997 race-relations initiative as “race entertainment” and who blistered the President’s 1998 saber-rattling over Iraq as “reaching insane proportions.” When a proposal to force public housing tenants to do eight hours of community-service work a month came before the House, Jackson asked, “Will picking cotton qualify?”
Over the past two years, Jackson has turned his considerable energies to blocking the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a Wall Street-backed pet project of Representative Charles Rangel, perhaps the most powerful member of the Congressional Black Caucus–with Jackson arguing, in the company of labor, human rights and AIDS activists, that Rangel’s approach to trade liberalization would serve corporations but fail the poorest citizens of the poorest continent. And while other Democrats were climbing on board the Gore bandwagon last year, the young Congressman was still urging his father to mount a Democratic primary challenge to the Vice President.
Even now, as a supporter of Gore, Jackson has emerged as the leading Democratic advocate for opening the fall presidential debates to make room for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader–introducing a House resolution that urges the Commission on Presidential Debates to include Nader and any other candidate whose participation is supported by a majority of voters polled. And as Jackson was making a case for Gore at the Democratic convention in August–arguing that while Gore is a tepid choice, Bush poses a genuine threat to America’s poor–he was expressing the disappointment of progressives with the Gore/Lieberman ticket and telling the Shadow Convention that the party of working Americans was being hijacked by corporate lobbyists and the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. It was the Congressman’s blunt talk about Gore and ideological tensions within the party, Democratic insiders quietly suggest, that prevented Jackson, perhaps the most articulate of the party’s young leaders, from securing a prime-time speaking slot at the convention.
Steve Cobble, a veteran aide to Jesse Jackson Sr. who worked with his son in the National Rainbow Coalition, says the younger Jackson is well aware that his bluntness has burned bridges to some of the party’s most powerful players. “He is still a young man, but Jesse Jackson Jr. has a tremendous amount of political experience. He’s savvy. He knows what taking on the establishment in his own party means–that it makes things harder for him in Washington,” says Cobble. “What’s interesting about him is that, while he could take a much easier route, he doesn’t do so. He takes real risks based on his beliefs because he really doesn’t want to just go along.”
While Jackson’s idealism and meticulous style–he has not missed a single House vote since his election–earn him the respect even of ideological opposites such as House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, his refusal to toe the party line has made his Congressional career more difficult. When Jackson arrived in Washington in 1995, he sought a seat on the House Transportation Committee in order to fight for his district’s chief legislative priority–development of a job-creating third Chicago-area airport. Top Democrats, influenced by the Daley organization, blocked his request and steered Jackson toward a less desirable slot on the Banking Committee. While Jackson eventually won a powerful Appropriations Committee gig, he is hardly seen as a team player. Democrats with whom he has clashed, even Rangel, tend to refrain from public criticism of a young man who, all agree, could one day be a leader in the House, a senator or even, as his father has suggested, the first African-American President. But, privately, they tend to echo a senior House Democrat who says, “Everyone likes Jesse Jr. They respect him. But they also know he’s got priorities that guarantee he’s going to be fighting with them. That’s going to make it harder for him to rise the traditional way.”
Jackson knows that an absolutist approach may slow his progress in what is still a go-along, get-along Congress. “I’m going to have to work this institution from the outside in, not from the inside out,” he says. Even on the outside, Jackson’s outspoken style has given him powerful enemies. When a Chicago television station recently offered Jackson a talk show, Mayor Daley objected. And the Congressman’s willingness to condemn police brutality, not just in the Chicago area but as far away as Philadelphia and New York, has in recent months made Jackson a frequent target of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk-radio hosts–a circumstance that threatens to make the son the sort of lightning rod that his father became for conservatives.
Clashes with power do not daunt Jackson; indeed, he relishes the struggle for absolute goals–proudly publishing ratings of his Congressional votes by dozens of interest groups on his Internet web page, from the consistent 100 percent approval of the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women and Peace Action right down to the zeros he gets from the Business-Industry Political Action Committee and the National Right to Life Committee. In the midst of the fight with Rangel over the Africa trade bill, at a time when he was facing immense pressure from the Clinton Administration and fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus to bend on the issue, Jackson ticked off changes in the legislation that were made to head off his alternative Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment for Africa Act. “I may not win it in a comprehensive way, but I’m certainly winning pieces of it,” he said, referring in particular to concessions on AIDS-related issues.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, says Jackson is right. “He does have an impact on legislation that’s out of proportion for someone who has been in Congress just five years,” says Wallach, who has counted Jackson as a vital ally in debates on globalization issues, where the Congressman has consistently opposed the Clinton Administration’s free-trade initiatives. “There are some issues where he forges coalitions across partisan lines, working with Republicans to fight corporate welfare, for instance. There are other issues where he works with groups that are outside of Congress to put pressure on the Administration and the leadership.”
“One of the things I have learned is that people in Washington like to talk about reform, but they don’t like reformers,” says Jackson. “People here don’t necessarily like me as a reformer, but it is often hard for them to argue with the necessary reforms.”
Reform is really too tepid a word for what Jackson seeks. His father may have patented the phrase “Keep Hope Alive!” But the young Congressman, who is almost universally referred to as “Jesse Jr.,” displays a faith in the prospect of revolutionary political transformation that goes well beyond anything the Rev. Jesse Jackson dared propose during two presidential runs and forty years of civil rights, economic and social-justice activism. While the sons and daughters of pioneering political players often take a more pragmatic route than their elders, Jesse Jr. frequently refers to his father as “conservative.” The man who mounted the first serious campaign by an African-American man for the presidency of the United States bristles at the phrase, but he does not entirely dismiss his son’s point. “We were working to break down barriers, fighting battles that didn’t always allow us the freedom [Jesse Jr.] has, fighting battles that sometimes required us to compromise in order to achieve progress,” the father says. “[Jesse Jr.] has been freer to develop an ideology, and to develop a vision. He has the opportunity to see beyond the moment. He doesn’t just go from election to election.”
Indeed, as Congressional Democratic leaders pore over polling figures from Arkansas and Louisiana in hopes of finding a route to the magic number of 218 that spells a House majority, the younger Jackson talks of a “magnificent obsession” with forging a supermajority for fundamental change. “You cannot buy into economic conservatism and have a dream of justice for America. It doesn’t work,” explains Jackson, who joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus upon his arrival in Washington. “So how do we get beyond conservatism? How do we establish a new paradigm in American politics? We do that by going way beyond the messages of campaign consultants and every few years trying to piece together a platform that is marginally less offensive than what the Republicans are proposing. We do it by talking about fundamental rights. The Constitution. I want to advance the paradigm, to recognize that the Constitution of the United States is an evolving document that is still in need of amendments to provide every American with economic security.”
To that end, Jackson would amend the Constitution to guarantee healthcare, education, affordable housing, employment security, equal rights for women and minorities, and a clean environment. He also wants an amendment mandating truly progressive taxation. “That’s how we pay for all this stuff,” Jackson explains. The shorthand Jackson uses to describe his package of amendments is “a more perfect union.” Next year, the Congressman will publish a book with that title. But already he is taking his ideas on the road–using the considerable persuasive tools of a man who earned degrees in divinity and law before embarking on a political career. Traveling the country, speaking at state Democratic conventions, in the basements of union halls and the church pulpits where his father once preached of a civil rights revolution, Jackson has begun to present a message far more adventurous than that of any other prominent Democrat.
“He is one of the few Democrats, maybe the only Democrat at the national level, who are talking about ideas and strategies that move the Democratic Party beyond just reacting,” says State Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who co-chairs the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network, a coalition of legislators and local elected officials. “In a way, he’s like the conservative Republicans used to be: He’s not working on winning one election, he’s working on coming up with a way to change the whole political landscape.”
Not everyone is so impressed with Jackson’s initiatives. Some of Congress’s most progressive Democrats, such as Senator Russ Feingold, argue that tinkering with the Constitution is a dangerous game. Conservative Democrats, particularly those linked to the Democratic Leadership Council, dismiss Jackson’s grand schemes for pushing the party leftward as recipes for electoral disaster. And House minority leader Richard Gephardt politely steers conversations toward mentions of the help that Jackson has provided Democratic Congressional candidates–the Illinoisan stumped for fellow Democrats in more than thirty districts in 1998 and is expected to do the same this year.
Jackson is not surprised by such responses. The man who spent his twenty-first birthday in jail after being arrested during an antiapartheid demonstration is well acquainted with the challenges that come with demanding more than power is willing to concede. But, Jackson, says, experience has taught him that big demands are necessary in order to convince disenchanted citizens to re-engage with politics and create a popular counterbalance to special-interest influence.
Jackson has already tested the model in his Chicago-area district. The Congressman is fiercely loyal to the people who elected him in the 1995 special ballot, during which he was opposed by the Daley organization and by senior Democrats who accused him of bringing nothing more than a well-known name to a district that had been famously neglected. Illinois’s 2nd Congressional District, an old-fashioned blue-collar enclave that stretches from the South Side of Chicago into neighboring factory towns, was badly battered both by the decline of the steel industry and by many years of less-than-inspired Congressional representation. Gus Savage, who represented the region through the eighties, was accused of everything from sexual harassment to anti-Semitism, and the man who replaced him, Mel Reynolds, lost the seat when he was sentenced to a five-year prison term for having sex with a teenage campaign employee.
When 30-year-old Jesse Jackson Jr. started making the rounds of South Side Chicago neighborhoods and the suburbs of Harvey, Posen, Ford Heights and Flossmoor, he came as a certified prince of the civil rights movement, a young man born in the segregated South just four days after his father marched across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in the company of John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But he was, as well, a graduate of the same St. Albans School that educated Al Gore. While the father sacrificed his own education to thrust himself into the movement as an aide to King, the son collected a master’s degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary and a law degree from the University of Illinois. “We didn’t know what to make of him when he announced he was running. We knew his father’s name, but we didn’t know Jesse Jackson Jr.,” recalls the Rev. Len Dubi, of St. Anne’s Church in the south-suburban community of Hazel Crest. “So we went to the debates. We asked all the questions, and he was head and shoulders above the rest.”
Dubi and other activists in the district argued that development of a south-suburban airport would provide the economic stimulus to renew the region, and Jackson agreed–recognizing that the campaign for the airport could unite the district’s racially diverse population. The airport project had been stalled for years, however, in large part because of opposition from Daley, who saw it as a threat to Chicago’s O’Hare. In defiance of Daley, Jackson has built a broad coalition to back the airport; and on a windy afternoon last March, he led several thousand labor, clergy and community activists on a six-mile trek through the district’s most depressed neighborhoods. Behind banners that portrayed the development fight as an economic justice struggle–Break the Daley Stranglehold: Grow the Southland, read one; another sign declared, Economic Justice for South Suburban–a racially diverse crowd of suburban mayors, laid-off steelworkers, priests, rabbis and even a few registered Republicans seemed to be prepared to follow Jackson as far as he would lead them. Outside the Markham Roller Rink, a huge sign read, Go Jesse Go! Hang in There! And when the Congressman mounted a rolling flatbed truck and began singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,” African-American teenagers and elderly Italian women put their arms around one another and joined him in the chorus.
“No one has ever pulled people together like he has, black and white, suburban and city, rich and poor. It’s remarkable,” says Dubi. “Even more than Rev. Jackson, he’s an organizer. He gives others the glory and praise. But we know if it wasn’t for him, none of this would be happening. In five years, he’s gotten people to put aside racial and regional differences and to believe that it’s possible to build a movement around issues of economic justice.” Jackson has faith that the same sort of movement can be built at the national level. He will do so, he says, by speaking with a bluntness that is rare in contemporary politics. And he will begin by talking about race. “I believe, fundamentally, that race is the most central issue in the nation. So I have to talk about the history of racism in this country–not for the purpose of trying to make white Americans feel guilty about their ancestors and the role that their ancestors played in enslaving African-Americans, or about how other minorities were treated in this society,” the Congressman explains. “I think race is most instructive for us as a tool, similar to the glasses that you have for vision. When one interprets and sees America through the lens of race, today’s political context becomes clearer.”
Jackson, who notes that statues of Confederate generals fill the Capitol where he works, says, “All of what we are today has its genesis in the great divide over the question of race before, during and after the Civil War. Whenever I explain this to an audience, be they Democrats or Republicans, they are spellbound. And when I remind them that the Constitution was written to protect the economic interests of slaveholders and wealthy industrialists–not for the great majority of Americans–people get it. They understand exactly what I am saying when I tell them it is time to amend that document to reflect the interests of all Americans.”
That understanding, Jackson argues, is the key to changing the very nature of American politics. “When we see history through the lens of race, when we understand how the Constitution and our whole political system evolved to maintain the power of white slaveholders, then we finally are freed to speak to the American people in the language of the economy,” he says. “The day that someone votes for me for President of the United States, they have to believe that I’m going to change something about their quality of life in a way that even Alan Greenspan can’t change it.”
No, Jackson says, he is not announcing his candidacy for President–nor for mayor of Chicago, governor of Illinois, US senator or any of the other political advancements for which his name is regularly floated. America does not need another ambitious politician, Jackson argues, it needs a political transformation that would make real the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that one day the child of a civil rights pioneer and a child of the Confederacy might recognize a common interest in economic justice.
That project is Jackson’s mission. “Dr. King kept going back to Dixie, even after he won the Nobel Prize, because he knew that was the heart of the problem,” Jackson says. “He knew that until he moved those conservative Dixiecrat voters, until he got them to recognize that they, too, were the victims of this country’s great racial divide, nothing would change. So I have to go to Dixie, and to the rural Midwest, and to all the other places where Democrats aren’t supposed to go.”
What will Jesse Jackson Jr. find in those far corners of America? “A supermajority,” he says. “Democrats shouldn’t be talking about a few seats here, a few seats there; we should be talking about how do we get to a supermajority. To do that, we have to offer a clearly better deal. What’s the better deal? Healthcare for everyone. Housing for everyone. Education for everyone. That’s not the Republican deal, that’s not the DLC/New Democrat deal, that’s not the marginal deal, that’s not the ‘Read-my-lips-here’s-what-the-consultant-told-me’ deal. What I’m talking about is a better deal–a deal so much better, in fact, that the grandsons of Confederates and the grandsons of slaves can agree that, finally, it is time to bridge the great divide and begin to pursue the economic rights that have been denied us all.”
John Nichols writes “The Beat” for The Nation. Research support provided by the Elections 2000 Fund of the Nation Institute.