Jesse Jackson Jr., who just won reelection to his congressional seat, keeps insisting he hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for mayor in February. But when he talks about the new political army he’s organizing he sounds like he’s been running for quite a while.

For the past year Jackson has been trying to put together a slate of candidates for the three citywide posts in the election–mayor, clerk, and treasurer–and lining up aldermanic contenders to run in at least 15 of the city’s 50 wards. Running with a lot of other candidates doing their own campaigning with their own workers would boost the mayoral candidate’s prospects across Chicago, as well as help protect him from the kind of disastrous finish Bobby Rush had when he made his lonely mayoral bid in 1999. “Each aldermanic candidate becomes a field organization for us,” says Jackson. That’s important given that the race is getting crowded–it already includes political activist William Walls and Cook County Circuit Court clerk Dorothy Brown. Jackson has also been trying to build a multiracial, multiethnic slate, which seems key since Daley, who hasn’t officially announced yet either, would be running with his new Latino city clerk, Miguel del Valle, and his new black city treasurer, Stephanie D. Neely.

Jackson, who set up the Jackson Exploratory and Listening Committee to look into a mayoral bid, says that even if he isn’t a candidate this time around, his new political army will provide a base for a campaign in four or eight years. “It will never go away,” he says. “For the first time in Chicago history there will be a strictly volunteer political organization.” Of course it won’t have jobs to hand out, but then the patronage-hiring scandals mean Daley shouldn’t either. Jackson says people don’t need that kind of incentive anymore–they’ll join because they want better representatives in City Hall.

The headquarters of the organization isn’t hard to find. It’s at the corner of Exchange and 75th Street, sharing a space and staff with Jackson’s exploratory committee. Hanging in the window are enormous blue signs for Sandi Jackson, the congressman’s wife and preferred candidate for alderman of the Seventh Ward. That ward is now represented by William Beavers, who just won a seat on the Cook County Board and would like to see his daughter fill his aldermanic shoes.

On October 28 Sandi Jackson was holding an open house for supporters and potential volunteers in the storefront next door. Across the street stood about a dozen demonstrators, most holding hand-printed signs. trick or treat: sandi jackson running for alderman–trick! said one. A man with a megaphone paced back and forth. “Sandi? Who is Sandi?” he shouted. “Where’s she live? With that guy Jesse Jackson Jr.? Is he a congressman?”

Upstairs the manager of the new organization and the exploratory committee, Vincent Fry, was sitting behind a desk that held four computers and a laptop. “I do Web things on one, voter information stuff on another,” he said, then stopped short. “Could I do without all of them? Yes. Do I use them all? Absolutely.”

The hallways of the 4,000-square-foot space were littered with new copiers and new fax machines, some of which still hadn’t been plugged in, and the closets were full of phone cables. Ward and precinct maps were pinned to the walls, and six flat-screen TVs and a plush leather sofa filled the “media room.” Desks with untouched laptops lined the walls of a room designed for future communications staff. There were also two kitchens and bedrooms, for Fry and assistant manager Andrew Wilson, who eat and sleep at work.

Jackson appeared with a friend he wanted to show around. Wearing a mischievous grin, he nodded toward the window and the protesters across the street. “We’ve got democracy on the south side, thanks to Alderman Beavers and his paid protesters,” he said, though he didn’t offer any proof that Beavers was behind the protest.

Fry headed back to his office and sat down at his desk. “Keep in mind that if we’re running with a group of aldermanic candidates who don’t know how to run, we’re going to have to do it all for them,” he said. “One of the things we can do is help people get petition signatures to get on the ballot.” He opened a database that included the names, birth dates, and addresses of every registered voter in the city. There were codes indicating who’d agreed to sign petitions for Jackson or candidates he was backing, who’d agreed to put signs in their windows, who’d agreed to volunteer. Every voter is assigned a bar code, which is printed on the paper sheets volunteers take with them as they go door-to-door soliciting support. Once the sheets are back in the office the bar code is scanned and the voter’s data appears, ready to be updated.

Fry said every voter who showed interest in Jackson or his allies would be contacted for help a half-dozen to a dozen times, and all of their responses would be recorded. “No matter what happens in this mayoral race,” he said, “when people want help they should be able to come down here for it.”

Jackson walked into Fry’s office and plopped down on a couch. He said that just as it was important for a mayoral challenger to have aldermanic candidates to run with, it was important for those candidates to have someone at the top of the ticket to unite behind. “We need a catalyzing message,” he said. “Somebody’s got to do it.”

He said he had to find a way to rally the black community yet still appeal to other voters. That’s why he wanted 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz to sign on as the candidate for city treasurer and Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley as city clerk. “With this name, Jesse Jackson, I have to have a broad ticket,” he said. “I’m supersensitive to it, and it could keep me from pulling the trigger.”

Asked what he thought his chances were of winning the white vote, Jackson jumped to his feet. “Look, the thought of the rainbow ticket has already shaken things up!” he said, then insisted that Judith Rice had resigned as treasurer because she didn’t want to campaign and that Daley had been forced to find another African-American to replace her. “Hey,” he said, laughing so hard he bent over, “maybe after 17 years in office Mayor Daley will step down and run with me for city clerk!”

Still laughing, he said that Daley had appointed not only del Valle and Neely but half the current members of the city council. (Actually Daley appointed only 19 of them, and after their appointment all of them got elected to their seats; but he’s likely to appoint replacements for Beavers, Todd Stroger, and Tom Murphy, who just became a judge.) His voice rising, Jackson said that the Daley administration had given vacant lots and social-service funds to black ministers around the city and that every independent political organization in the city had been destroyed by the mayor’s political machine. “And you want me to go out there and do this alone?”he shouted. “You want me to go around saying, ‘Please, vote for me instead’? He’s going around talking to all the committeemen! I’ve got to have somebody with me–it’s the only way it can be done!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth, Jim Newberry.