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Obama's Relationship With Emil Jones--it's, Uh, Complicated

Besides worsening his own legal problems, one of the things Rod Blagojevich accomplished when he (allegedly) shopped around Barack Obama's Senate seat was to highlight the president elect's relationship with Emil Jones, the outgoing president of the Illinois state senate. As it happens, Jones figures into the scandal in several ways. He was initially rumored to be "Senate Candidate 5," the lone potential Senate appointee who bargained with Blago. Yesterday Jones announced his support for legislation that would mandate a special election to fill the seat. And the Times reports today that Jones also played a key, if unwitting, role in Blago's downfall--by passing a bill, at Obama's behest, that would ban the kind of pay-for-play contract allocation that appears to have been Blago's forte.

Almost every mention of Obama's relationship with Jones features the word "complicated"--by which most reporters seem to mean that, while Obama generally kept his distance from crusty machine pols like Jones, he realized he couldn't advance in Illinois politics without Jones's help, so he held his nose and embraced him when necessary. That's part of the story. But, if you'll forgive the word, the relationship is actually much more complicated.

It's certainly true that Obama has a longstanding wariness of machine hacks, which once even extended to Jones himself. Back in his organizer days, Obama pulled together a rally of sorts outside Jones's office--Jones himself eventually came outside to see what the fuss was about--and, in his first book, Obama refers to a very-slightly fictionalized version of Jones as a "ward heeler." It's also true that political calculation partly accounts for Obama's rapprochement with Jones once he joined the state legislature. In one widely-reported conversation after Democrats retook the state senate in 2002, making Jones the chamber's president, Obama approached his adversary-cum-patron and announced: "You have the power to make a United States Senator." "Do you have anybody in mind?" Jones responded. "Yeah, me," said Obama.

Obama's former senate colleagues told me there were two ways Jones made this happen. First, he made Obama the point person on a wave of legislation that moved through the senate in 2003--bills on health care and taxation that had been bottled up during the years of Republican rule. This gave Obama a record of accomplishment he could run on statewide. Second, Jones used his political muscle to help Obama raise money and bring key interest groups aboard. The latter was almost more important, because one of Obama's opponents in the Democratic primary was Dan Hynes, the state comptroller and the son of a longtime Chicago pol. Hynes' family connections made him the favorite to pocket the endorsements of the state's major unions. But with Jones in his corner, Obama was able to snatch up a few endorsements, and, critically, keep the AFL-CIO from taking sides in the race.

But that's at best half the story. As Obama would discover, Jones was more than a typical ward heeler. And Obama's affection for him was more than that of the ambitious reformer forced to court a few dodgy characters on the road to higher office.

First, Jones. Almost everything in the man's biography would have predicted he'd resent a young idealistic reformer from Hyde Park by way of Harvard Law School. That was certainly the reaction of most of Obama's black colleagues in the state senate, many of whom considered Obama over-educated, arrogant, and condescending. (In one famous episode, unearthed by Obama biographer David Mendell, Obama nearly came to blows with a West Side pol named "Hollywood" Rickey Hendon after Hendon accused him of blocking funding for a project in his district.)

But my sense, again from talking to former state senate colleagues, is that Jones was actually pretty keen on Obama from the get-go. Jones was quick to recognize the promise of Obama's academic credentials and even took a measure of racial pride in them. Early on, he dispatched an aide named Dan Shomon to help Obama navigate the media. (Obama's response, Shomon once told me: "I do my own press.") And he would frequently flag Obama down in Springfield, during which time the two men would banter with a clear fondness for one another. At one point during his Springfield days, Obama began participating in weekly poker games with three white senate colleagues--Terry Link, Larry Walsh, and Denny Jacobs. Jones never joined the game himself. But he'd frequently drop by Link's house on poker night for half an hour, just to check in on his protege. Rituals like this inspired Link and Walsh to think of Jones as a kind of father figure to Obama, they later told me. (Jones also seemed to see Obama as a valuable link between the senate's black caucus and some of the more conservative white Dems from suburban and downstate areas.)

For his part, Obama's relationship with Jones seems to have genuinely softened his thinking on machine politics, at least so far as it concerned delivering for people who would otherwise go without. Late in Obama's state senate career, Jones held an education bill hostage until it provided additional funding for a mostly black high school on Chicago's south side. It was the kind of inside manuever goo-goos typically denounce as a racial shakedown, and you can imagine the young Obama doing the same. Instead, Obama praised Jones, telling The Chicago Tribune that "if you talk to him, you see it's grounded in the sense that, for years, a predominantly African-American institution was short-changed by the state. ... He's playing the insider game to make sure money is going to these projects."

Obama elaborated on his more nuanced views of Jones's political style when I interviewed him about a year ago: 

You can make an argument that there were times when patronage politics worked pretty well for the down and out and for the immigrant end of America. And, you know, maybe the lace curtain crowd didn't like it, but it really helped in terms of upward mobility.

Of course, he went on to say that the moment for Jones's brand of politics was over. Which brings us back to the theme we started with: The two men have a genuinely complicated relationship. Though it now looks as if Jones isn't Senate Candidate 5, it would hardly be surprising if Obama didn't want to bequeath him his Senate seat. But that doesn't mean Obama has only viewed their relationship instrumentally all these years. What "complicated" should mean in this case is that Obama respects Jones and feels warmly toward him--but nonetheless sees him as the past. Come to think of it, that sounds like a father figure to me. 

--Noam Scheiber