Like a musician called back to the stage by the crowd's applause, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White says he decided to return to the political arena because the voters haven't had enough.
White, 77, announced at the Illinois State Fair last week that he'll run for a fifth term in 2014, reversing his earlier vow that 2010 would be his last race. True, his widespread popularity could help Democrats retain the coveted seat, but White insists it was the voters who called him back for an encore.
"After I had made the announcement last year that I was not going to seek re-election, I was inundated with phone calls ... asking me to consider staying on because they were extremely pleased with the delivery of service at the secretary of state's office," White told The Associated Press. "I want to respond favorably to their request that I stay put."
White, who still travels and performs with the tumbling team that bears his name — and does his signature wide-legged handstand that the youngsters jump through — will be 80 at the next election and would be 84 at the end of a fifth term. But to anyone who might say that's too old, White has a reminder: He can hold that handstand for five minutes.
"Heck, Jesse's in better shape than most 50-year-olds," said Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. "You won't hear that criticism from me."
White inherited the office — and its dismal reputation — from Republican former Gov. George Ryan, who's currently serving a 6 ½-year sentence in federal prison for racketeering conspiracy and other charges, stemming in large part from alleged activities while he was secretary of state.
White has said he's cleaned up an office that was under a "cloud of corruption" by banning the practice of soliciting campaign contributions from employees and hiring an independent inspector general. And he said he's transformed trips to the Department of Motor Vehicles from unpleasant daylong ordeals to quick errands.
In 1998, White became the first black person elected as secretary of state, after serving as Cook County recorder of deeds from 1992 through 1998. He also was a state representative for 16 years.
"I've been in office for over 35 years and no scandal," he said.
But having an incumbent as popular as White also gives Democrats a great shot at holding on to the office, especially after the party lost races for comptroller and treasurer, two of the state's six constitutional offices, to Republicans in 2010. Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, suggested White may have announced his plans now so he won't be seen as a lame duck.
Even so, Dillard and other Republicans were hesitant to say it's time for White to bow out, perhaps because they don't want to risk alienating valuable older voters.
"Years ago, my mother told me never to discuss people's ages," Dillard said. "I leave it to the voters to determine at what age people should retire."
White was born in Alton and moved with his family to the north side of Chicago as a young child. He earned a bachelor's degree in education from Alabama State College (now Alabama State University) in 1957; spent 10 years in the military, including a stint as an Army paratrooper, and worked for 33 years as a teacher and administrator in Chicago public schools. In 1959, he founded the Jesse White Tumbling Team for children living in Chicago's Cabrini-Green and Henry Horner public housing communities.
White plans to travel to Croatia and Scotland with the tumbling team this fall.
He shrugs off suggestions that his age is an issue, saying he hasn't missed a step and is still working hard to make the state's roads safer and his office more efficient.
After a recent visit to the secretary of state's facility in downtown Chicago's James R. Thompson Center, a beaming Christine Murphy, who was celebrating her 21st birthday with a new license, said the whole experience was painless — though she admitted she'd made a special trip after hearing it would be faster than the office near her hometown of Grayslake, where waits can still be long.
"I'm very happy with this DMV," Murphy said. "I was in there for maybe 10 minutes."
Pat Dobrowolski, 59, said White has made the office's facilities more organized, and her friend Ray Golenia, 68, was happy to walk away with a new license for only $5.
"They gave me a good picture," he said with a smile after a recent visit soon after the office opened for the day. "And they were pleasant even this early in the morning."
No pollster could disagree that the voters seem to be happy with White, who won 100 of 102 counties in the 2010 election and all 102 in 2002.
"(Voters) sent me a message that they were pleased," White said. He says he wants to apologize for changing his mind after saying he wouldn't run, but after being drafted first into the military and then into public service, "I am draftable."