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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

Mr. Jones Delivers

The new Senate president brings a different style and agenda to the statehouse. Emil Jones shows how to get things done.

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Rod Blagojevich inherited a $5 billion budget deficit when he became governor in January. Ten thousand state employees had already opted for early retirement; more than 1,000 had been laid off. For the Democrat governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature, there seemingly wasn't much left to cut. The challenge in the spring session became finding new sources of state revenue.

Some, like the new Senate President Emil Jones (D-Chicago), proposed borrowing money secured by the state's $9.1-billion tobacco lawsuit settlement. The new governor instead proposed selling $10 billion in pensionbonds. The Illinois House approved Blagojevich's proposal, which required a three-fifths "super" majority. When it came to the Senate, it first lost by one vote but then passed after a second try.

Passage of the bond was seen as an early triumph for Blagojevich, whose legislative victories since then have been few. But it was also a turning point for Jones. Many people thought his caucus wasn't unified. It turned out to be the other way around -- Senate Republicans floundered while Jones kept his party members in line. "There were those who thought his caucus would break up. It was rock-solid all year," says Rich Miller, a Chicago-based journalist and publisher of Capitol Fax, a newsletter for Illinois political insiders.

Senate Republican leaders fought the pension-bond measure, arguing it was fiscally irresponsible and believing the Democrats would crack. After Jones endorsed Blagojevich's bond measure all other 32 membersof his caucus followed. Not so with the Senate Republicans; a few broke ranks to vote for the measure. "Senate Republicans have underestimated Jones for years," Miller says.

People have been underestimating the 68-year-old politician for a long time. Jones was elected to the Illinois House in 1972 and to the Senate in 1982. In 1993, he became the Senate Minority Leader with the support of the Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley. When Democrats gained control of the Senate this year,after a decade of Republican rule, Jones became its president.

During those ten years of GOP control, the Senate was run with an iron fist by James "Pate" Philip, a powerful conservative from DuPage County. He retired when the Republicans lost the chamber. With Jones's ascension, there's a new tone in the Senate, some say, more collegial and bipartisan. But more importantly, there's a new agenda. Jones finally has a chance to advance issues he's long battled for, among them fighting discrimination in the workforce, he says, and perhaps most importantly, "education [funding] across the state."

Jones says he wants to do away with the state's reliance upon property taxes as the main mechanism for funding Illinois public schools. It's an issue that has important implications for every public school in the state, including Springfield, where District 186 still grapples with millions of dollars in cutbacks.

 

This year Illinois Democrats have passed government ethics and criminal justice reform and a state minimum-wage hikefrom $5.15 an hour to $6.50 by the end of next year. That's not to say it's been easy. Democrats, even though they control the governor's office, all but one of the other five constitutional offices, both legislative chambers, and the state Supreme Court, failed to pass gay rights legislation and a bill that would have given illegal immigrants the right to a driver's license -- and as a result, car insurance. They also have not seen eye-to-eye on Exelon's proposed $2.2-billion acquisition of Decatur-based Illinois Power; legislation sought by Exelon passed the Senate, but not the House.

Democrats have had trouble getting on the same page because there's no real, unified voice among them, Jones says. "People put a lot of emphasis on the party. The party is not what is used to be, like years ago. The party is a myth, more or less."

Keeping the current majority together in the Senate --lawmakers who represent the inner-city of Chicago to downstate rural communities -- takes a different leadership style, one that depends less on party loyalty and intimidation."Pate had fear; [House Speaker Michael] Madigan, pure damn fear," Miller says. "Jones doesn't order people around. He keeps them informed. He respects their intelligence. He tries to develop consensus. He does real good on that. People just don't want to disappoint him. People want to do right by him." Yet, Miller adds, "He's one of the most underrated leaders under the dome."

If he is underrated, other state senators aren't saying. Unlike Blagojevich, who seems to be wearing down the patience of legislators from either party, Jones knows how to work the floor and control a room. Jones's social finesse, in other words, could be the perfect balance for Blagojevich's brashness and Madigan's relentlessness.

"He's a pretty savvy guy. He knows the process," says state Sen. Vince Demuzio (D-Carlinville). "He's also a hard-nosed negotiator who does his best to pull people together. There are a few people around here who cause the Senate to listen when they speak," Demuzio says. "There are other members -- when they speak, people find something else to do."

"Having had the opportunity to work with now-president Jones for eight and a half years, I consider him a gentleman, one of his word," says state Sen. Larry Bomke (R-Pleasant Plains), one of four Senate Republicans to vote for Blagojevich's bonds. "He's eager to help the Democratic Party, but I find him to be a gentleman to work with. Most people believe the process is partisan. But the process has to be bipartisan."

Bomke's been in the Senate since 1996 but this is his first year as a member of the minority. He was used to seeing 10 to 13 of his bills become law every year.

This year? "I didn't have any. Probably 95 percent of the bills out of [committee] were Democratic. There were a lot of pent-up bills Democrats wanted to get out."

 

Jones became interested in politics when he was 25, when he watched John F. Kennedy debate Richard Nixon on television in 1960. Jones, who graduated from Roosevelt University in Chicago with a degree in business administration, was selling insurance at the time. He decided to join Kennedy's campaign.

Kennedy's assassination three years later was another turning point. "I was working at Oak Forest Hospital. I'll never forget that day," Jones recalls. "Some of the people working there were happy [with Kennedy's death] because of his stance on social issues. And these were Democrats. I became very disillusioned during the '60s." But Jones must not have been shaken enough to leave politics. Instead, he climbed the ranks of Chicago's 34th Ward, becoming its top precinct captain. He then moved to City Hall to work for his mentor, then-Alderman Wilson Frost. He was also able to wrangle a sewage inspection post.

Jones left Chicago politics for state government in 1972, when he ran for a seat on the Illinois House. He used all his ward and city connections to win. "Had it not been for the very strong political organization back then, maybe I wouldn't be here today," he says.

When the first Mayor Daley died suddenly in 1976, a year into his fifth term, Alderman Frost tried to succeed Daley by claiming, as the city council's pro tem, that he was next in line. The argument didn't work. Machine-backed attorney Michael Bilandic took the reins. Bilandic only lasted a term, losing to Jane Byrne, in part, due to the blizzard of early 1979, when City Hall failed to clear the streets of Chicago. Byrne, who'd been close to Daley but cultivated an image of a reform-minded outsider, managed to alienate not only machine Democrats, but African-American voters, who were an important base of support for the party. In 1983, Byrne was defeated in the Democratic primary by U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, who became the city's first -- and only -- African-American mayor.

A former state senator, Washington was also an ally of Jones. In 1987, Jones ran for Congress -- partly at Washington's urging. But not too long after Jones started campaigning, Washington died suddenly in 1987 of a heart attack. Support for Jones also seemed to die and he lost the primary. Jones refocused on state politics and within five years would be the leader of his caucus.

In the mid-'90s, Jones got the Congressional itch once more. In a crowded primary field he and Jesse Jackson Jr. were the front-runners in their Southside Chicago district. Jones had the support of precinct captains and ward bosses; Jackson received help from entertainers Bill Cosby, Aretha Franklin, and Smokey Robinson, and, of course, his father, Jesse. The press covered the race as a battle between street-smart politics versus high-tech glitz.Glitz won -- handily.

"The papers were saying [voters] would lose if I went to Congress, that it was more important to keep me at the statehouse," Jones says. "I learned early in life when one door closes, another one opens up."

 

During the fall veto session, Exelon pushed hard for legislation to ease its purchase of Illinois Power. The bill passed through the Senate, but hit a wall named Madigan in the House. The House Speaker insisted on language to limit ComEd's ability to hike rates. The legislation died and the merger was abandoned.

Miller, of Capitol Fax, says Jones recruited so many senators to vote in favor of the bill that he allowed some of them to go back on their promise and vote no if they felt so inclined.

According to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, Jones has received about $200,000 in campaign donations from ComEd and Illinois Power between Jan. 1, 2001, and June 6, 2003. Madigan wasn't far behind, having received more than $193,000.

Illinois utilities spread their money broadly among state politicians and have given them more than $2.5 million over the past two years. Jones isn't the number one recipient by far -- former attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan received more than $366,200 during the past two years and former House Speaker Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst) received $205,700. But Jones's acceptance of the cash at least suggests that political action committees see him as a worthy investment.

ComEd and Exelon's chief lobbyist, Harry Jones (no relation), declined to talk about the merger legislation -- or Jones's role. But he was effusive in his praise for the Senate president, talking about Jones' passion for education.

"My personal experience is that he's always helping someone understand the power of education. If you see Emil Jones' signature next to anything it's on the issue of education," Harry Jones says. "Education is paramount for him."

The first two bills Emil Jones sponsored this year dealt with education, one on funding and one on expanding charter schools statewide. In 2001 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Chicago State University. Earlier this year Jones was given the Humanitarian Award by the Chicago-based Abraham Lincoln Centre, a 98-year-old organization that works on childhood development, education, and welfare-to-work initiatives in Chicago's Southside.

What concerns Emil Jones the most is the disparity in public school funding from district to district. Chicago suburban schools are flush with cash, yet downstate and inner-city schools struggle with run-down facilities. Illinois schools rely on property taxes and a complicated, long-disputed, much-debated formula that aims to distribute property tax revenues with some degree of fairness.

"Right now, it's not fair," says Jones. "There have been many, many proposals out there." He's in favor of a shift from property taxes to income taxes. It would probably require an income tax hike (along with subsequent property tax relief), but most public schools across the state would receive more funding. It's not a very popular idea. The influential Chicago suburbs, whose schools benefit financially from the property tax formula, based on high real-estate values, also like reliance on property tax revenues because of the local control they provide over education funding. With funding based on income taxes, the state could regulate public schools in a way it can't do now. Jones concedes that there might not be enough political will to do anything soon.

Miller agrees. "I don't know if anyone has what it takes to get this done," he says. "But you can always count on Jones to get more money for education."

Jones's idea for funding schools with income tax revenue versus property tax revenue is nothing new. Two state task forces have proposed this and in 1997 Gov. Jim Edgar, with considerable support from Madigan, nearly made the switch. Blagojevich, however, has other ideas. At least for the short term, he's been proposing that the best way to fund schools is to trim fat from the budget. He has stated that doesn't include raising income taxes, even with a decrease in property taxes.

 

Legislators are getting used to Blagojevich's insistence. They interpret it as half grandstanding, half political naiveté.

"The governor's style and the widespread perception of his long-term agenda make the relationships between him and the legislature more contentious than in recent memory," says Kent Redfield, professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

This certainly doesn't exclude the relationship Blagejevich has with Jones. They butted heads during the summer when the governor claimed the Senate weakened an ethics bill, which it passed just before the end of the spring session. They also sparred over criminal justice reform when Blagojevich proposed striking out a measure that African Americans considered key. (Conversely, Madigan spokesperson Steve Brown describes the speaker's relationship with Jones as "excellent.") Jones downplays the bickering, but not altogether.

"I personally like the governor. Sometimes the decisions the governor has to make, he relies on assistants or staff. Sometimes his staff, in my opinion, doesn't properly inform him of certain decisions he has to make," Jones says.

Jones also accuses Blagojevich of "governing by the media."

"Going by the press reports, the Senate gutted the ethics bill. But that's not the case," Jones says. Held up by budget legislation that must be passed by May or else the legislature goes into overtime session, which requires bills to pass by a super-majority, the Senate was forced to approve a weak ethics bill, Jones says, with the understanding it would be revisited during this fall's veto session.

"So when the governor says that we gutted the legislation, well, that's totally wrong. Had we attempted to change it during the last week of May, the governor would not have been able to get his budget out," he says. What's worse, because budget negotiations would had to have taken place during an overtime session, the supermajority would have given Republicans control over the budget, he says.

The Democrats are the pragmatic party in Illinois, says Redfield. Because of this, they're more likely to figure out how to repair damage and move on. He adds that the state Republicans are the ones right now who appear to be struggling the most, due mainly to ideological battles and from being in recovery mode from losing so much in the last election.

In the end, though, Redfield says it's not really helpful to talk about the Illinois Republicans and Illinois Democrats, as if only two such entities matter. "There's the Jones party, the Madigan party, the Daley Party, the [Illinois House Minority Leader Tom] Cross Party," he says. "Emil doesn't dominate as much as Pate Philip dominated, but so far so good in terms of being Senate president. He's held his caucus together. He's delivered for the governor."

Jones doesn't think of it as delivering. He recalls the days when the first Richard Daley, with a single phone call, could change the outcome of 20 bills, or when a ward or political organization could always be counted on for a specific number of votes.

"It used to be all political organizations. We are more or less now based around individuals. It's a one-to-one type of thing. I have to personally go out and talk to each individual legislator and work with them, deal with them and their concerns to get their support."

In Illinois politics, there's often no better way.

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