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Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007 04:25 am

The church of clout

Meet the powerful preacher who is shaping Illinois' education-reform debate

Untitled Document There is nothing on earth that God does not do,” the Rev. James Meeks tells thousands of worshippers at Chicago’s Salem Baptist Church House of Hope, “but God has to have some people to do it through.”
It’s the last Sunday in October, only a week and a half before Election Day, and several local and state elected officials are sitting near the front. The next Sunday, even Gov. Rod Blagojevich comes to pay his respects. Illinois politicians know that they have to pay attention to Meeks and his congregation, which is said to number 25,000, making it one of the largest in the state. Many more people hear Meeks’ sermons on the radio or watch them on TV. Salem Baptist Church’s powerful members include Cook County commissioners, Chicago aldermen, and state legislators. Plenty of the rank-and-file members are also politically active. No other institution or organization in Chicago has more people trained and authorized to register voters. The members also run an elementary school, a food pantry, and an investment club. And they adore their warm, down-to-earth pastor — many have vowed to follow him wherever he’s called to lead, whether that’s on a campaign to vote their neighborhood dry, a drive to set up a prison ministry, or a trip to picket City Hall. “They are a force to be reckoned with,” says political consultant Delmarie Cobb. “That’s why you see so many politicians come to the church. [Its members] believe they’re holding people accountable.”
At the same time, many politicians and public officials are put off by Meeks’ willingness to use his church as a power base, his vehemence in opposing abortion and gay rights, his reliance on political theater, his fickleness when it comes to alliances. He has emerged as one of the most visible and outspoken voices for education-funding reform in Illinois, but his leadership has had mixed results, at best. But such is Meeks’ clout that few politicians are willing to criticize Meeks publicly — they want him and his congregation on their side, or at least not working against them. And so they keep making the pilgrimage to the House of Hope.
As a young man Meeks wanted to be a religious and political leader like Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesse Jackson. The youngest of five children born to a tile setter and a factory worker, he grew up in Englewood, which by 1970 was 96 percent black and increasingly poor. His family attended the South Side’s Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, which was known for its activism during the civil rights years. In the late ’60s and early ’70s Operation PUSH met there. “He worked with his father down in the church kitchen while those meetings were going on,” says the Rev. Marshall Hatch, a longtime Meeks friend, “so, very early on, that seed was planted of a ministry outside the church walls.”
Meeks says he delivered his first sermon at a backyard funeral for a pet fish. “I also built snowmen, and I preached to them,” he says. “I’d like to think that was the coldest group I’ll ever face.”
After graduating from Harper High School, Meeks went to Bishop College, a small religious school in Dallas. He got his degree; married his high-school sweetheart, Jamell Reed; then took graduate classes at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth, and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, in Evanston. In 1980 he became the associate pastor of Beth Eden Baptist Church in Morgan Park.
It was there that he got into his first public power struggle. After working for five years with one-year contracts, he asked for a longer-term arrangement. The elders refused, the dispute escalated, and they locked him out of the church. When no one was watching the door one Sunday morning, he walked in and interrupted the service, announcing that he was leaving to start a new church and inviting everyone to join. Around 200 people did. Meeks rented a space and named his new church Salem. His congregation paid him what he calls a weekly “love offering.” Word spread that he was a young, dynamic preacher whose sermons were rooted in everyday concerns and delivered in everyday language with humor, and the church grew rapidly. By 1990 Salem was able to take out an $855,000 mortgage to buy a recently shuttered Catholic church, church office, and school at 118th and Indiana. The church seated around 2,000, but the congregation soon outgrew it. Salem bought nearby vacant buildings and turned them into a youth worship center and Sunday school, then kept buying property, some of it at scavenger sales. Eventually it took out two mortgages totaling $36 million to build the 11,000-seat House of Hope, which opened in 2005.
According to the Sun-Times, in 1995 Meeks crashed a Christmas party at Jesse Jackson Sr.’s house, where he spent a few hours debating religion and politics. Then he slid a memo with a few more thoughts under Jackson’s door the next morning. Jackson invited him to get involved in what was by then known as RainbowPUSH. People who know both men well say that although Meeks clearly wanted to attach himself to one of his longtime heroes, Jackson wanted the connection at least as much. He hoped Meeks and his congregation would pump new energy into RainbowPUSH, which was dominated by its older, civil rights-era members. Meeks soon became the organization’s state director and later its vice president. Meanwhile Meeks was busy leading a campaign to take back the Roseland neighborhood from drug dealers. Church members marched in the streets and preached on corners, and Meeks began appearing in news stories. Salem drew even more worshippers, including Ricky LeFlore, a West Sider who started attending Salem in 1997 with his wife and daughter. “Even though it was not what I was looking for, it was what I needed,” he says. “We went out one night, up Michigan Avenue, just talking to people, talking to what you’d call ladies of the evening. When pastor has a vision, we get behind him, and we make it happen.”
In 1998 Meeks began pushing church members to expand their activism. For years Roseland had been starved of new development, and its most prosperous businesses had been liquor stores. Meeks decided that the stores were scaring off new investors. “He basically called me and said, ‘We need to dry up Roseland,’ ” says Rochelle Jackson, Salem’s longtime attorney, “and you kind of go, ‘Oh, OK.’ He has these tremendously huge ideas, and he just says, ‘Let’s make it happen.’”
Over the opposition of the local alderman, Robert Shaw, and the liquor-store owners, Meeks and his staff set out to get a referendum on the fall ballot prohibiting the sale of alcohol in large swaths of the 9th Ward. When Mayor Richard M. Daley heard about the effort, he made a trip to Salem and promised his support. Groups of Salem members went door-to-door gathering signatures, and that November the referendum passed. It would be tied up in litigation for years, but Meeks had sent a message that he could get people behind an idea. Jesse Jackson Jr., who’d been elected to Congress in 1995, got the message. He soon started worshiping at Salem and eventually became a member. “One thing that attracted me to him was his social efforts — he rid the ward of liquor stores,” Jackson says. “He began with that kind of organizing, then started registering people to vote. Then we worked to get Anthony Beale elected [as 9th Ward alderman].”
With Beale’s victory, Meeks increasingly became regarded as the pastor of a church that could get people elected. For the next few months he was all over the news, condemning police killings of unarmed motorists, offering a reward for information on a Roseland murder, finding a job for paroled ex-Congressman Mel Reynolds, accompanying Jesse Jackson Sr. and U.S. Congressman Rod Blagojevich on a mission to free prisoners of war in Yugoslavia. The spotlight, which Meeks clearly enjoyed, only seemed to get more church members interested in politics. “There was no strategy in the church that ‘we’re going to come up with a master plan and run candidates,’ ” says Cobb. “It was just one person after another deciding to run for office.”

By 2002 Salem was a well-established stop for public figures. That spring, R&B star R. Kelly, who called Meeks his “spiritual adviser,” was charged with videotaping sex acts with an underage teenager, and a few hours after appearing in court he went to Salem, where he was welcomed by Meeks. A couple weeks later, Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan showed up at the church to praise its tutoring program. At a RainbowPUSH event over the summer, Jesse Jackson Sr. announced that someday Meeks would be his successor. After that spring’s primary, Meeks began hinting that he might make his own run for office, and at the end of July he announced that he was launching an independent campaign against Democratic state Sen. William Shaw, Robert Shaw’s brother. Few Illinois legislators had brought as much money to their districts as William Shaw, but Meeks accused him of failing to secure funds for education and economic development. Shaw, who’s also the mayor of south-suburban Dolton, blasted Meeks, saying that he’d taken up the cause of education as a political stunt. Other Shaw supporters accused Meeks of running because the Shaws had backed a truck driver named Jesse Jackson against Jesse Jackson Jr. in the primary. “When Meeks ran it sounded like, it smelled like, a Jackson power move,” says the Rev. Lance Davis, a Jackson critic who leads the Dolton-based Christian Fellowship Churches. “I spoke with Rev. Meeks before the election, and he was kind of vague about why he was running.”
The Meeks campaign team relied heavily on the congregations of Salem and other area churches. Dozens of church members, along with people from Jackson’s campaign, knocked on doors and stuffed envelopes. He received thousands of dollars in contributions — from church staff and their families, from politicians he’d supported, and from other religious leaders and organizations. Money also came in from companies owned by Tony Rezko, the wealthy businessman who was recently indicted for allegedly arranging payoffs from businesses seeking state contracts. Meeks says he wasn’t aware of Rezko’s contributions because someone else in his campaign office handles fundraising. Shaw had powerful allies of his own, including much of the Democratic leadership in Springfield, but that November Meeks won by 2,258 votes of 56,008 cast. Now he had even more clout.
Meeks’s first term in the Legislature received tepid reviews. Critics charged that he was so busy holding two huge jobs that he wasn’t accessible. Meeks, who caucused with the Democrats, the majority in the Senate, says he chose to focus almost exclusively on big-picture issues. “People have to make up their minds — do they want somebody shaking their hands or shaking up their school system?” he says. “Do they want somebody visiting their son in jail or making sure their son doesn’t have to go to jail? There is a trade-off. I can’t go to everyone’s barbecue.”
But Meeks has delivered very little legislation, big-picture or otherwise. In the 2005-2006 session he was the chief sponsor of only 17 bills, fewer than any other Democrat and all but five Republicans; the median for all Illinois legislators was 55. Only three of his bills got through the Senate. The most significant, which was actually introduced by Sen. Kwame Raoul, provided funding for police departments to put cameras in squad cars — Meeks had made news in 2005 for charging that an officer pulled a gun on him during a traffic stop — and it was signed into law last summer. The other two bills dealt with more obscure issues: The first changed the way in which sewage-incineration facilities are classified by environmental authorities, and the second formally abolished some obsolete election procedures. “I think he’s quite conservative with regard to what he invests his time in,” says Raoul, whose seat in the Senate is next to Meeks’s. “He’s told me, ‘I’m not just getting involved in any old deal — I’m down here to work on education funding.’ There are differing opinions as to whether or not that affects his representation, but I can’t think of an issue that’s more important.”
For years education advocates have pressed for a change in the way public schools are funded in Illinois. Property taxes supply the biggest chunk of funding, but critics say that hurts students from areas where the tax base is small. Over the past decade reformers have lobbied for a “tax swap” law that would reduce property taxes and boost income and business taxes. In 2003 the nonprofit Center for Tax and Budget Accountability drafted sample tax-swap legislation, and in early 2005 state Rep. David Miller and Meeks introduced bills based on it. Few lawmakers are ever eager to go on the record in favor of income-tax hikes, and with opposition from business groups and Blagojevich — who’d pledged in 2002 not to raise taxes — Meeks’s bill, SB 750, was doomed. That May, Meeks, realizing that he couldn’t get the 36 senators he’d need to override a veto by the governor, tabled his proposal. Meeks blasted legislative leaders from both parties, Blagojevich, and, for good measure Mayor Daley. “I did meet with the mayor when I was fighting for school funding with 750,” he recalled last summer. “I asked for his support. He never made a public statement in support of me or that legislation. Once it died, he said, ‘We need a funding solution.’”
According to sources close to him, Meeks, though clearly concerned about boosting school funding, had also seized the issue thinking that he could ride it to higher office — ideally the mayor’s office, even though Jesse Jackson Jr. appeared to be positioning himself for his own mayoral campaign. Meeks brought election-board officials to Salem to train more than 3,000 church members to be deputy registrars. (Registrars aren’t allowed to campaign while they’re signing people up to vote, but political operations have always used voter registration to boost support at the polls.) Late that fall, Jackson and Meeks conducted a poll to find out whether either of them had enough name recognition to be a viable mayoral candidate. Jackson fared much better. According to sources close to both men, Meeks was surprised at how low his citywide numbers were and decided that he needed to raise his profile. Last winter he thought he saw an opportunity when Blagojevich vowed that, if reelected, he would block tax hikes for another four years, meaning that he’d veto any tax-swap bill. By February 2006 Meeks was telling people that he would start putting together a third-party campaign for governor if Blagojevich didn’t make a commitment to boosting school funding. Political observers assumed that he was simply trying to pressure Blagojevich to put forward a plan, but the more Meeks talked about running for governor, the more likely it seemed he would. “I had mixed feelings about his plan to run, and I truly didn’t know what he was going to do,” says Raoul, “but if he knew all along that he wasn’t running, to somebody who was sitting right next to him, I’d say he was a pretty strong bluffer.”
Meeks held meetings with white evangelical Christian leaders, who were enthusiastic about his religious faith and his views on gay marriage and abortion. Peter LaBarbera, former executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, thought that Meeks could attract an unprecedented coalition of black and white Christian voters around the state. “This was a big deal,” he says. Meeks also met with Cardinal Francis George to get advice on how to appeal to Catholics. In March Meeks had breakfast with more than a dozen black aldermen, among them the 29th Ward’s Isaac Carothers, a sworn enemy of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s. According to one political insider, many of the aldermen didn’t want to have anything to do with a Meeks campaign but felt they had to show up — and afterward they jointly announced that they would support his candidacy unless Blagojevich agreed to commit billions of dollars to schools, economic development, and ex-offender programs. The next month Daley told reporters he hoped that Meeks and Blagojevich would work something out so the party wouldn’t be divided. He also said that state leaders should pick up the idea of a tax swap after the November election.
In May Meeks announced that he was organizing a statewide tour to collect the 25,000 signatures he’d need to get on the November ballot. But that same week Blagojevich got in touch with him, and on May 18 the two men met for five hours at a hotel in downtown Chicago. Meeks said later that Blagojevich told him a team had been working on several school-funding plans and that the most promising, the one the governor planned to announce the following week, was based on the state’s selling its lottery system. The expected $10 billion from the sale would be poured into public schools over five years. Meeks says he insisted on meeting again the next morning, this time accompanied by one of his attorneys, election specialist Burton Odelson. “I wanted to talk about the soundness of the plan financially,” Meeks says. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being hoodwinked.”
The meeting with the governor lasted an hour, and Meeks says he and Odelson came away persuaded. That afternoon Meeks told reporters that Blagojevich had promised to boost school funding. He also said he was calling off his campaign for governor. The announcement surprised many people. Could Meeks seriously endorse the lottery plan, which was widely seen as shortsighted and had been dismissed by many in the media and the Legislature as a nonstarter? Meeks insists that he got what he wanted — a pledge to revamp funding for public education. “I knew what I was doing,” he says. But many insiders, including close allies, now suspected that what Meeks wanted more than anything was to be a powerbroker, and so the details of the funding plan didn’t matter nearly as much as his having forced Blagojevich to publicly announce a plan. “It’s almost the Jesse Jackson [Sr.] phenomenon,” says Cobb, who then explains that it isn’t enough to just point out problems. “We need people who will take an issue and stick with it. The lack of completion has had a major impact on the black community.”
No one was more disappointed than Meeks’ evangelical supporters. “He blew it by not running,” says LaBarbera. “I respect this desire to help people with better schooling, so if he figured he got it, he accomplished his goal. But what he didn’t figure was, No. 1, what a weasel Blagojevich is, and, No. 2, will it get through? Maybe he’s a little bit naïve still.”

Meeks shifted his attention back to Chicago’s Mayor Daley. During a June sermon at the House of Hope he began reading from studies showing that Chicago’s lowest-performing schools had the most teachers with inadequate training. “We need to ask Mayor Daley some questions, like, why are we putting all the inferior teachers in failing schools?” he declared, calling on the men in the congregation to take more responsibility for their community by joining him at City Hall the next day. The Blagojevich gambit clearly hadn’t hurt Meeks’ standing with his congregation. The next day hundreds of men packed the fifth-floor hallway outside the mayor’s office. When asked why they’d come, most repeated Meeks’s words verbatim: “We’re here to ask the mayor some questions.”
If Daley wanted black votes, he needed to act, Meeks warned. Asked what exactly Daley was supposed to do, Meeks said Daley should acknowledge that there’s a problem and come up with a proposal to fix it — and, if the mayor wanted specific suggestions, Meeks was willing to take the mayor’s telephone call. Weeks passed, and Daley didn’t call. Meeks then began ratcheting up the pressure, threatening to organize bigger demonstrations. “We want to see the rebirth of the civil-rights movement,” he said. “Not one black school district in America is doing as well as a white school district. The gains of the ’50s and ’60s have all been hurt.”
In late July, 20 school buses full of men who’d taken the day off work pulled up outside Walter Payton College Prep, on North Wells. Led by Meeks, they marched briskly down the middle of the street, headed for Federal Plaza, waving signs that read, “Mayor Daley: Fix Our Schools!” and “End Apartheid in Chicago Schools!”
That afternoon, schools chief Arne Duncan told reporters that the district was making progress and invited Meeks to help. But word had just gotten out about a sermon Meeks gave earlier in the month, comparing the mayor and the governor to “slave masters” and their black supporters to “house niggers.” Questioned by reporters, Meeks explained that the terms were harsh but that so was the reality — powerful white men, with the consent of their black allies, presiding over a school system that fails black children. But now Meeks’ choice of words, not education reform, had become the issue. The next week Meeks addressed the controversy in a sermon, charging that the criticism was “clearly designed to take attention away from the fact that 2,000 men marched.” But he added that if people were offended by his use of the N-word, he would stop using it. “Racial, ethnic names should never be used by anyone, personally or publicly,” Daley told reporters the next day. “Thank God he has seen the light.”
In an interview a few days, later Meeks sounded tired, though he insisted that he’d made progress on highlighting school inequalities. “Every day there’s been a headline about this issue,” he said. “I want to suggest that the whole town is talking about education.” He promised to keep up the pressure on Daley but didn’t seem certain of his next move. He said he might have to organize another march, and he refused to rule out running for mayor. Summer and then fall came and went without any more rallies or marches, and Meeks’ sermons returned to more spiritual themes. In August, in honor of his 50th birthday, Salem agreed to buy a $3 million jet, which, Meeks says, will be “part of our wealth building.” In November, after running unopposed, he was reelected to the senate.
This past fall, Jesse Jackson Jr. conducted an “exploratory and listening tour” to gauge his own mayoral chances, though he quickly abandoned the idea. He was vague when discussing his pastor’s role in the municipal elections. Allies of the two men say that their relationship had become strained because they’d disagreed over who should challenge Daley and because Jackson thought that Meeks was trying to upstage him with the education marches, though Meeks now says he never wanted to run for mayor. “Some of Meeks’ comments have been a little divisive,” says state Rep. Miller. “At times you need to march, but at times you need a dialogue. You can’t get so far out there that people you need to work with can’t talk to you.”
However much Meeks has hurt his credibility among politicians, he’s still the pastor of a fiercely loyal congregation, of thousands of people who believe that his causes are righteous — and politicians know that. Jackson still attends services, and Miller says that he and Meeks are planning to renew their efforts to get Senate Bill 750 moving again. Late last fall, Daley, facing two aggressive black opponents, invited Meeks to a meeting in his office with Arne Duncan. Meeks will say only that they talked about school funding and “teacher quality.” Later a member of the mayor’s staff ridiculed Meeks’ transformed view of Daley since the summer, saying, “First it was ‘cut and run,’ and now it’s ‘stay the course.’ ”
A couple of weeks ago, Meeks and Daley appeared together at a press conference, where they made a pitch for a school-funding-reform bill. Reporters asked Meeks whether the joint conference meant that he was endorsing Daley. Meeks declined to answer directly but, when offered the names of other candidates, said, “I probably won’t be endorsing anybody who’s going to lose.”
Mayoral candidate Dorothy Brown responded by calling her own press conference. “To have a leader of that magnitude make a statement like that in the middle of a high-powered mayoral race is very insulting and disappointing,” she said angrily, adding that she didn’t think much of the way Meeks — and Jesse Jackson Jr. — had criticized the mayor until deciding not to run against him. “It’s really disingenuous and almost seems like hypocrisy. Maybe they weren’t really sincere in their efforts in the first place.”
But then she said she still hoped that Meeks would invite her to the House of Hope. “I’ve been there several times, and I’ll seek to go there this election as well,” she said. “I would love his endorsement.” Sure enough, on Sunday, Jan. 14, she was standing at the front of the church, asking the congregation for its support.

Mick Dumke is a freelance writer in Chicago and a regular contributor to The Chicago Reader, where a version of the story also appears.
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