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Could Emil Jones' Old-School Tactic Spell Trouble for Barack Obama?

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Could Emil Jones' Old-School Tactic Spell Trouble for Barack Obama?

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

It’s now been a couple days since Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones announced his retirement. The same day he broke the news, Jones filed papers hoping to pull off an old distasteful trick of Illinois politics—to have Democratic Party bosses pass his political office to his child. Jones has been slammed in the press, but he’s defended his choice publicly. Still, the maneuver has started to raise questions about whether the controversy could be a potential problem for one of Jones’ political mentees, Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

In Illinois, the tradition of taking care of your kids goes back decades.

And it’s been defended by some of the biggest figures in Illinois politics.

DALEY: Some people never have had the virtue of having a son that they could lead down to, or a son that they could reach up to. And it’s sad they haven’t.

In 1971—then Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed a powerful alderman’s son to a good-paying job.

Another alderman called it nepotism.

Daley lost it.

DALEY: If this is the society in which we live. That we’re afraid to appoint our son, or our nephew’s son, or our relative.

This past Monday, Senate President Emil Jones openly said that he wanted his son, Emil Jones III, to take his seat in the state senate.

He announced his retirement just 10 days before the state ballot was finalized—leaving just enough time for party bosses to remove his name from the ballot and stick his son’s on.

It’s a maneuver that’s been getting heavy rotation in the state in recent years—Congressman Dan Lipinski, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, and Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele all got their jobs that way.

On Tuesday, the senate president defended what he’s trying to do.

Jones’ pointed to other political families—like the Daleys and the Madigans—even though those cases are slightly different, with the children winning elections decided by voters—not internal party deal.

But the crux of Jones’ argument is one that’s been used before—that because it’s been done in the past, he should be able to do it too.

CANARY: Whether it’s a good tradition or a bad tradition, I think it’s a tradition that’s passed its sell by date.

Cindy Canary head the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

She says she can understand why Jones’ would feel like entitled to appoint his son.

CANARY: Emil Jones is very much a part of the tradition of old-school Chicago politics.

But Canary says she thinks public tolerance for the practice has evaporated in recent years—and that the flap over the deal could come with some political fallout.

Especially for Jones’ most prominent political mentee.

CANARY: As mentor, I think he served Senator Obama very well.

Canary says, for those who follow Springfield, its well know that Jones’ took then State Senator Barack Obama under his wing.

Teaching him the ins and outs of the chamber.

CANARY: You know, how to navigate politics, how to understand where the political landmines were, who you had to connect with, where you built alliances and built bridges. Jones also, I think, to his credit, very early on, recognized a lot of Senator Obama’s talents. He recognized his interest in reform—and interest that I should say I’ve never felt Senator Jones shared—but he knew how to put Senator Obama forward where it best served him.

WASHINGTON: He became Obama’s political godfather. They both agreed to that.

Laura Washington is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, a professor at DePaul University—and a long-time observer of Illinois politics.

Washington says the current situation with Jones’ brings up one of the things Illinois Senator Barack Obama has had to handle with care during his bid for the presidency.

That’s his relationship with the gritty world of Illinois politics.

WASHINGTON: He’s handled it brilliantly, but he’s walking a razor-thin tightrope.

During his campaign, Obama has had a dual relationship with Illinois and Chicago politics.

He’s used it as a credential at times—saying that it proves that he can handle tough brass-knuckle politics.

But at several points throughout the campaign Obama has also been careful to keep his distance from the city and the state’s reputation for dirty tactics.

OBAMA: There’s no doubt that I had friends, and continue to have friends who come out of the more traditional school of Chicago politics. But that’s not what launched my political careers, and that’s not what I’ve ever depended on in order to get elected. And I would challenge any Chicago reporter to dispute that basic fact.

Still Laura Washington says there’s danger here for the presumptive Democratic nominee.

WASHINGTON: He’s trying to be the messenger of change, even though he comes out of a long tradition of down-and-dirty Chicago politics. And he rose through that tradition and benefitted through that tradition—so he’s trying to have it both ways.

The question now is whether Jones’ unapologetic attempt to swap his son into office is the kind of thing that could alienate voters in a national election.

And if it has did, whether that would make it more difficult for Obama to manage his ties to Chicago and Illinois politics.

CALHOUN: Do you think that has the potential of creating sort of an awkward situation for Senator Obama, or is it too local politics?
WASHINGTON: I think for his opposition the challenge is to make the case—to tell a simple uncomplicated story. Some people might say, “Who is this Emil Jones? Nobody’s ever heard of him outside Chicago. Well remember Tony Rezko? Nobody knew who Tony Rezko was a year ago, and Tony Rezko is on the lips of every Obama critic in the country now, including Hillary Clinton. The trick is to be able to keep it simple. And Chicago politics is not simple. It’s very byzantine.

Obama’s campaign did not offer any comment on Emil Jones’ attempt to put his son in office.

At one point I asked Washington how likely she thinks it is that Obama will be able to keep the less savory aspects of Chicago politics at a distance all the way though the election.

Washington said the only thing that certain about Obama’s approach, is that it’s worked so far.

I’m Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio

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