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In case you hadn’t heard, Jesse Jackson is leaving the U.S. Senate. Jackson joins a long list of notable senators in retirement this year—among them Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn, Nancy Kassebaum, Alan Simpson. So why aren’t we weeping? Moreover, why aren’t we noticing? Perhaps because Jackson’s tenure will leave a hole so small it can’t be measured.
When Jackson was mulling a run at the District’s “shadow” senator seat, he needed a soapbox, and statehood sounded like a great ticket. The issue boasted the three central elements of any Jackson cause: racial injustice, high media profile, and a hospitable political environment.
But during Jackson’s 6-year tenure, the District has come closer to joining Maryland than it has to statehood. District residents are used to be being used, but Jackson’s willingness to drop the city like a bad habit constitutes a new low.
So how does it feel to be used and discarded like an old paper plate? A few District residents set aside their shock and sense of loss long enough to assess the impact of Jackson’s invisible version of senatorial silhouette.
Capitol Hill resident Joan Eisenstodt said that it doesn’t appear Jackson advanced the cause of statehood. “In fact, I forgot he was our shadow senator, so effective was he,” she said.
Jim Lieberman remembers back when Jesse was running…from anything that offered a hint of responsibility. “I recall the time when Jesse Jackson could have entered the race for D.C. mayor. It would have given him a chance to campaign for an office he might have won, and given him a chance to lead in a difficult but potentially rewarding situation.”
Like the carpetbaggers of old, Jesse Jackson blew into town in 1990 from Chicago seeking political fortune. Jackson’s opportunism was calculated if not well contrived—it wasn’t as if the District was short on ego-driven leaders who took credit for everything and responsibility for nothing. But with Marion Barry relegated to the political hinterlands—and, not so incidentally, a jail sentence—Jackson found the political playing field wide open. Jackson choked, however, opting for statehood lobbyist instead of mayor. Given the lack of any real duties or obligations, the statehood job seemed like a big case of lowered expectations, but the job had one perk that Jackson found useful—the honorific of Senator.
That might not be such a big deal in the United States, but Jackson would find the sobriquet useful in his frequent missions abroad. Sen. Jackson could expect more courtesies from the status-minded Syrian Alawites than the mere Rev. Jackson. Do you think the Alawites know the difference between “shadow” and “shadowless?”
To his credit, Jackson was on board in 1994 when the District’s statehood movement reached its pinnacle achievement—forcing a House of Representatives vote on the issue for the first time. Jackson gathered co-sponsors and lobbied for passage with the help of his National Rainbow Coalition apparatchiks, who mounted an aggressive phone campaign. The bill garnered 153 votes, a not-insignificant total given the amount of institutional antagonism toward the District. But then the Republicans took over the House, the city’s finances went into the toilet, and Barry came back to run the city. So Jackson packed up his carpet bag and skedaddled back to Chicago to run Jesse Jackson Jr.’s successful congressional bid.
In refusing to resign after he split, Jackson became the only U.S. Senator (shadow or otherwise) who does not live in the community he represents. Jackson says he is still determined to work on statehood through nationwide grass-roots organizing.
If only that were true. The forces against statehood appear to be bottoming out. President Clinton supports the cause (for whatever that’s worth), and some pundits believe that the Democrats—who seem to support statehood as long as it does not have a chance of passing—are likely to take the House, and maybe even the Senate. And the city’s financial crisis has already seen its darkest days.
If Congress is going to do something to the District—receivership, appendage to Maryland, or renegotiated home rule—there would seem to be a window of opportunity for a high-profile lobbyist to push the District’s agenda. But Jackson checked out about the time Newt checked in. According to John Capozzi, who was elected shadow representative in 1994, Jackson lost interest in statehood after the Republicans took over. Jesse became like one of the kids on the milk carton—both ubiquitous and absent. Since Newt and his boys took over, the elusive Jackson only appeared at a few statehood meetings and on stage (looking very grumpy) at Newtfest ’95—Gingrich’s “peace in our time” speech to District residents at Eastern High School.
Since then, Jackson has been AWOL on every major issue facing the District. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton helped to cover his nonexistent ass when she published a letter at the time he left for Chicago.
“You have wisely refused to be drawn into the city’s fiscal crisis and have kept the focus on statehood. There is little that the statehood delegation could do about D.C.’s finances—but precisely because the financial crisis is a dangerous distraction from the pursuit of our legitimate rights, your leadership in maintaining that focus was especially important.” In other words, thanks for nothing—literally.
Still, Jackson has his supporters. Florence Pendleton, the other shadow senator, praises Jackson for “elevating the consciousness” of the Congress and the Democratic Party on the lack of political freedom in the District. “He did quite a bit,” says Pendleton, citing a couple of protests that Jackson led at the Capitol and the White House. But Pendleton’s evaluation is easily impugned, given her prediction on the inevitability of D.C. statehood: “It’s coming forth like the dawn because the people of the United States want to see democracy at home before we see it abroad,” she says. Check yourself, Florence.
The District isn’t going to see statehood any time soon, and it’s even less likely to see Jackson working on behalf of anything but himself. As John Mercurio of the Washington Times wrote when he broke the story, “The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a nationally known preacher with no church, will soon become a politician with no office.”
And without a portfolio. Jackson has been marginalized in the presidential race, eclipsed by Louis Farrakhan, and ignored by the media that once anointed him the great black hope. Marion was right: Jesse doesn’t want to run nothing but his mouth, and now that nobody’s listening, where does that leave him?—Jeffrey Itell