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By JENNIFER HALPERIN

Emil Jones passes muster
as new Senate Democratic leader

His motto for success is 'Always find out
what the other guy wants' Jones, a member of
two minorities in the Senate a Democrat and
an African American did a commendable job in holding
together his caucus and in bargaining final deals


You never know just how beneficial it can be to take time out for breakfast. Consider the experience of Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones Jr. (D-14, Chicago) some 20 years ago. It was 1973, and Jones was a freshman state representative eager to pass his first bill a measure calling for certain public construction contracts to be set aside for minority-owned firms. The bill's most vocal detractor was, of all people, now-Senate President James "Pate" Philip (R-23, Wood Dale), who then was a colleague of Jones in the House. Philip had distributed written pleas to every House member urging opposition to the bill, which was being fought vigorously by the construction industry.

Jones decided to excuse himself for a few minutes from a morning House session to have some breakfast in the Capitol's basement cafeteria. When he got there, he saw that Philip too had decided to enjoy his morning meal away from the hubbub of the House. So Jones turned around, headed straight back up to the chamber and asked the House speaker, W. Robert Blair, to call up the set-aside bill which passed in the absence of its most ardent critic.

"Pate helped me pass my first bill [and] didn't even know it," Jones recalled with a chuckle. "I still haven't brought it up to him."

Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones Jr.
Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones Jr.

In a simple way, the anecdote shows Jones' ability to negotiate the political mazes that sometimes are the only route to success in Springfield. Years later, he demonstrated that same acumen by putting together a coalition of supporters to elect him leader of the Senate Democrats over an array of other hopefuls for the spot.

But Jones related the story to illustrate his principal political motto: Always find out what the other guy wants. "I knew what Pate wanted [in this case], so I was able to use that to my advantage. The most important part of negotiating is that you must know where they're coming from. As long as I know what all the players want I can get what I

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want."

That's a pretty self-assured statement coming from someone who has had to lead Senate Democrats during a particularly frustrating and at times humiliating session. With Republicans taking control of the chamber for the first time in 18 years in January, veteran Democratic senators could do little but watch and complain as their power was yanked away. Committee leadership posts, often used to control which bills are heard and which ones are shunted aside, passed to Republicans. And a whole set of new rules was implemented that consolidated even more power in Republican hands.

On top of those rude awakenings, Jones has had to contend with a caucus that's coming from all over the geographical and ideological spectrum. "The majority feels like now they have the gavel they can do anything they want," he said. "It was a hell of an adjustment for many on my side of the aisle. Of all the caucuses they say mine's the toughest one. I have to massage a lot of egos. I said from when the session began, 'Don't expect me to come in with a magic wand. Don't expect me to be a miracle-worker.' "

While Jones may not have been described as a miracle-worker following his performance as leader of the Senate Democrats this spring, he was credited with doing a good job considering what he had to work with.

"He walked into [the session] as an amateur and walked out a player," said Paul M. Green, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration at Governors State University in University Park. "As it turned out, if Phil Rock was minority leader to the Democrats this session, chances are the final outcome would've been not much different." What probably helped Jones deal with his diverse caucus, Green said, is his experience representing vastly different elements of his own district. "That is not a monolithic black constituency. You've got one of the wealthiest parts of the city there. He's not a single-color politician."

A visit to Jones' district quickly reveals the wide range of communities he represents, from the affluence of the largely white, Irish Catholic enclave of Beverly to the poverty in some neighborhoods, marked by boarded-up storefronts and ramshackle homes. "It's more easy for me to understand issues that come up [affecting different people and areas] rather than just one geographical area," Jones said. "I've had city and suburban parts to my district."

"When you deal with social ills, you're not limited to one geographical area," he said. "Last year, for example, I realized Bush was in trouble because people in the middle-and upper-income areas of my district, who are mostly white, were out of jobs. Waiters there had gone to college but couldn't find jobs in their field. Usually in that section of my district, people would have voted for [Bush]."

"There is a misconception that social problems [affect and exist in] black areas only," he said. "That's just not true."

Some of Jones' chief concerns are social problems such as poverty, racism, unemployment and substance abuse. Often, he draws on personal or family experiences to understand these issues. For instance, besides raising his own four children, Jones has been legal guardian of his youngest brother's teenage son since 1980, when the boy's mother died. "My brother was very messed up by the Vietnam War," Jones said. "He came back and he was just not the same. We've gone through a lot with him since then violent outbursts, substance abuse. It's made me a lot more aware of what war can do to people, and [how different factors play a role in] homelessness and substance abuse problems and other problems. And I'm a lot more aware of veterans' problems."
Jones is especially proud of his work in the late 1980s to pass a law that allows outpatient mental health patients to be reimbursed by insurance companies for counseling by a licensed social worker instead of solely psychiatrists

Understanding the pain that psychological problems can cause individuals and their families, Jones is especially proud of his work in the late 1980s to pass a law that allows outpatient mental health patients to be reimbursed by insurance companies for counseling by a licensed social worker instead of solely psychiatrists.

"Social workers are more affordable for a lot of people," Jones said. "When people or their family members are working through problems like with substance abuse, a social worker can help with the problems that go along with that. It works better for some people than having them pay the high expense of a psychiatrist."

On a warm June morning when tens of thousands of people were gathering in Chicago's Grant Park to celebrate the Bulls' third championship victory, Jones was busy working in his office at the James R. Thompson Center downtown. Some would consider it a foregone conclusion that an African-American politician from the city's south side, as Jones is, would take advantage of the chance to publicly rub elbows with those considered heroes by Chicagoans. Instead, he's meeting with lobbyists, working with constituents, and taking some time to reflect on his background, which he said helped shape his political motivations and the role he plays in the legislative process.

August & September 1993/Illinois Issues/27


Jones was born October 18, 1935, in the Morgan Park home his grandfather built after migrating north to Chicago from Alabama. Jones' father worked a variety of jobs, from chauffeur to court bailiff, to support seven children; his mother was a homemaker. He received an associate degree from Chicago Loop Junior College and then attended Roosevelt University School of Commerce.

Like many Democratic politicians holding office today, Jones ties the roots of his interest and involvement in politics to John F. Kennedy's 1960 campaign for president. Jones was a volunteer in the campaign, then became active in local politics through the Democratic party. "I guess it gave you a sense of being part of something. You could maybe make a difference in someone's life."

But the Kennedy campaign almost marked the end of his political career. "It was rather devastating the assassination. Even today I can't watch that scene on television. I almost felt disillusioned, almost felt it was not worth it." Nonetheless he decided to pursue a career in politics.

His ties to the Daley machine were "friendly but not strong," he said. "I didn't set out to get in politics, but once I got involved as a volunteer with the Kennedy campaign I saw the possibilities. I was very supportive of [the Daley machine] but never held a political position like ward committeeman." In 1972 Jones ran for and won a seat in the Illinois House, then moved to the Senate in 1983.

"I don't even consider what I do a job," said Jones. "That's how much I enjoy it."

As much as he may love his job, it must have contained more than a few stressful moments this year. "A lot of the Senate Democrats have other aspirations Congress, statewide office so it isn't easy to trust a lot of members of the caucus," said a long-time Senate Democratic staff member who asked not to be identified. "But that's not a reflection on Emil. I mean, when you have a guy like Howie Carroll one of the two or three most powerful people in Springfield as head of the appropriations committee and suddenly all of his power is gone . . . well, it's hard to adjust to life in the minority."

Sen. John J. Cullerton (D-6, Chicago), who is interested in seeking a congressional seat, agreed. "It's not a reflection on [Jones]. Having a four-year term and being in the minority encourages someone to run. It's not surprising. And the fact that there's so many openings at the state level and in my case with Congress having potential openings . . . it's not a reflection of Sen. Jones it is a coincidence."

On the surface, Jones doesn't seem to let these ambitions bother him. He said he tries to use individuals' priorities to

28/August & September 1993/Illinois Issues


whatever advantage he can. "It's not a question of trust. It's a question of where everyone's priorities are. We in the Senate need to have a team approach, and they [his caucus members seeking election to statewide positions or congressional seats] need the support of colleagues to seek higher office. It's checks and balances. And even with those who were straying, other members turned on those members."


'But who knows how Dick Luft or Howie Carroll or Vince Demuzio would be in this position? I think a non-black would have problems keeping minorities behind him'

Even if all Democratic senators were satisfied to remain in the chamber, Jones' job still would be beyond difficult. Sen. Penny Severns (D-51, Decatur) explained it this way: "I asked a very naive question as a freshman senator: Why don't we caucus more often? As a more veteran lawmaker, I know why. These are independent-thinking people with strong ideas. [Jones] inherited as any Democrat would have a caucus that has not been known for harmony. Even the energy, commitment and dedication that [former Senate President Phil] Rock put into achieving harmony our diversity prevented it from occurring. I don't know of anyone who would have the ability to bring our caucus together."

"Given the internal strife and pressures of that caucus, it would be difficult for anybody to lead it," said Mark Gordon, spokesman for Philip. "I think the real test is whether he can put aside the interests of his constituency for the sake of the whole state. That's a real challenge."

Sen. Arthur L. Berman (D-9, Chicago) assessed the situation Jones encountered as such: "Even when the Democrats were in the majority there were many issues that prevented us from uniting. . . . This has been our tradition."

"I recognized even when we were in the majority under Rock, we were very diverse," Jones said. "Even with the past redistricting map, which is the most political thing you do in the body, we couldn't even pass a Democratic map."

Complicating this scenario is the fact that Jones' election as minority leader wasn't exactly smooth sailing. The fact that Jones was successful is something of a testament to his political abilities. He had not served as part of former Senate President Phil Rock's leadership team, and several other of his Democratic peers were seeking the title as a way to salvage some degree of power. But Jones managed to get the seven other African-American senators and the two Hispanic senators behind him; from there the numbers fell into place for him, although not effortlessly.

"He is not an experienced leader who had everyone's respect from the beginning," said Berman. "He did not have everyone's vote [to head the caucus]. He had the added burden of having to confront an experienced, powerful president of the Senate in Pate Philip. When you look at those hurdles, I think Emil's done quite well."

"People say, 'If we had someone more talented, we'd be better off,'" said Cullerton. "But who knows how Dick Luft or Howie Carroll or Vince Demuzio would be in this position? I think a non-black would have problems keeping minorities behind him. Because Jones is a minority himself, the minorities are represented by him and they're not in a position to complain they're being treated unfairly. I think it's very helpful to have a minority point of view expressed as part of leadership especially to Pate Philip. I hope [Philip] hears it every day."

Jones agreed it is important to have a minority viewpoint included among the "four tops." Sadly, he sees racism as alive and well in Illinois politics. "It is still here in 1993," he said. "It is very obvious. For example, during budget negotiations . . . people were saying they couldn't understand why minorities wouldn't vote for [the cigarette tax] to be used to help [their communities]. They never said anything about whites who didn't vote for it but would be helped by it. It's totally unfair, and I told the governor in meetings, 'Why should black legislators be singled out?' "

Sen. Denny Jacobs (D-36, Moline) had these words of advice: "It is a difficult position. It's been a learning experience for Emil. It was uncharted water for him. Under those circumstances, he's done a commendable job. He needs to address downstate caucus positions, make decisions more quickly, more assertively and not apologize that's a good leader."

Jones said he is looking forward to developing his leadership skills during the upcoming fall and spring sessions, and hopes to see a day when he leads Democrats in the Senate majority.

In the meantime, he takes pride in some things that took place during the spring session. "I was able to force more money into school aid," Jones said. "And I was able to fight the Senate Republicans when they tried to cut the governor's back-to-work welfare proposals. But the thing I'm most proud [of] is we held up a united front. On the rules fight, on most of the labor issues ... I was rather pleased to see that kind of unity.

"I'm glad the [caucus is] having trouble adjusting to being in the minority, because I intend to take the majority back in 1995," Jones said. "That's basically my goal. I don't have any aspirations about higher office at this point. My ego does not dictate that now. I may run for governor one day. But for now I enjoy the [legislative] process. [The legislature] is a great university. You get to meet people from all walks of life." 

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