Phillip Jackson

According to Phillip Jackson, the other candidates vying to be state rep from the 26th District would be wise not to discount Phillip Jackson. “Some people would say, ‘You’re too independent. You’re always doing what’s right for the people.’ That is correct,” he says. “The other guys, they’ve got billboards. They’ve got robocalls, they’ve got mailings—good! Keep it up! All we do is touch the people.”

Not everyone wants to be touched, but the Illinois General Assembly’s dismal recent record has inspired widespread desire for independence. In the 26th District, a stretch of the lakefront from South Shore to the Gold Coast, the calls have become yelps, hollers, and outright shouts.

Barack Obama once represented the area in the state senate, and his presidential campaign themes have been eagerly seized on by Jackson and the other four contenders for the house seat: they’re all proclaiming their commitment to shaking things up while quietly promising to use their connections and collaborative skills to get things done.

All say the state needs to prioritize education, health care, transit, gun control, and economic development. Attorney Paul Chadha points out that he teaches a class on negotiation at the Northwestern School of Law—a skill that could come in handy. Businessman Kenny Johnson promises to be a “breath of fresh air” but has leaned on his friend and former boss Jesse Jackson Jr. for advice, aid, and credibility. Will Burns, a former staffer for Obama and state senate president Emil Jones, says he’s at the front of “a movement and not just a campaign”—one that includes that well-known reformer Mayor Daley and a host of other political insiders. Even the incumbent, Elga Jeffries, goes out of her way to declare her independence, saying that Emil Jones called her an Uncle Tom when she defied him to vote for a freeze on electric rates. Then she adds that house speaker and state Democratic chairman Michael Madigan is backing her reelection bid.

But none of them claims to be both a reformer and a backroom deal maker with the unbridled enthusiasm of Phillip Jackson, an education activist who has served as a top official for the Chicago Public Schools, a budget wonk for the Daley administration, and head of the Chicago Housing Authority.

“I’m running for change,” he says, his voice quickly rising to rally volume. “A lot of people talk about it, but I’ve been doing it—for 30 years! I’m the only guy who’s worked inside City Hall and picketed City Hall! Everywhere I go, I get things done! Good things happen!”

Jackson says he was a key player in improving test scores in the schools and in the transformation of public housing—but adds that he’s not completely happy with either the plans for school reform or the dispersal of former CHA residents. He says he personally knows most members of the City Council, the general assembly, and the area’s congressional delegation, and he argues that his 2002 support for Rod Blagojevich was a key reason the governor topped Paul Vallas, Jackson’s former boss at CPS. Jackson says he’s not sure why none of the officials he knows has endorsed his candidacy.

“I’m not doing this to garner endorsements,” he says. “Why won’t these people support me? I can’t answer that.” He adds: “Those guys, they all have a Phillip story, and it’s a good story. And this is what I can tell you: I’m going to make sure that all of our children are properly educated.”

Specifically, Jackson says, the state needs to find ways to create “academic zones” around schools so that parents, communities, and businesses are as involved and accountable as professional educators. He says he has the communication and people skills to make it happen. “I’m the only candidate who has walked up every block in the district, because that’s what I do,” Jackson says. “This morning I was [campaigning] on 26th and Michigan, and it was freezing out there. All I got was 12 people in an hour and a half. But guess what? Those were 12 people I would have missed.”

Several of the candidates claim their polls have them in a position to win. Jackson is one of them, and he discounts the rest. “These guys are not running against a man—they’re running against an image. And fair or not, it’s that I care about people.”   v