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From Ghetto Life 101 to Politics 101

Can LeAlan Jones, most famous for the public radio documentaries he made as a teenager, help the Green Party win over the black community?



LeAlan Jones rushes onto the West Chatham Park practice football field and shoves his right outside linebacker: "Why are you waiting for him to come to you?" he demands, then shows the young man how it's done, squatting into the stance of a linebacker like a velociraptor ready to spring.

Jones, 31, is the Illinois Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate. But while the major party candidates for Barack Obama's old seat travel the state, shaking hands, kissing babies, and raking in millions of dollars in campaign donations, Jones has spent much of the fall literally on the sidelines, doing what he can to help coach the south side's state-ranked Simeon High School football team, where the boy he's raised for the past eight years, junior Robert Gregory, is the star quarterback, and he's a volunteer linebackers coach.

Shut out of the major debates and frustrated by the lack of traction he's gained in the black community, Jones says his time is better spent on the football field, where he can work to mold vulnerable teens into responsible young men. "There's thousands of dollars of scholarship money on that field right now," he says.

Mark Kirk has raised $12.8 million, Alexi Giannoulias $8.4 million. Jones has yet to reach the $5,000 threshold at which campaign finances must be reported. He recently rode Amtrak coach to Carbondale for a Green Party fund-raiser, which netted him $445. He paid for some flyers and yard signs, and now his campaign is in debt.

Yet he's a factor in the race, and a trouble spot for Giannoulias in particular. A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll this week showed Kirk leading Giannoulias 44 percent to 41 percent—with Jones getting 5 percent. Despite a lack of support from black leaders, Jones expects to get many of his votes from Chicago's traditionally Democratic African-American neighborhoods. And he's undeterred by the possibility that he might play a role in handing Obama's old seat to the Republicans. "I don't know how you 'spoil' a process that's already rotten," he says. "The Democratic Party is just as much a part of the problem in their policies as the Republicans."

The Greens so far have struggled to win over blacks. In the 2006 election, Green gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney took more than 10 percent of the vote statewide, legally establishing the party and making it easier for Greens to get on the ballot in the next two elections. But in seven predominately black wards in Chicago, he failed to win even 2 percent. The party didn't put up any African-American candidates in Illinois in 2006 or 2008, but worked hard to recruit some for this election: Jones is one of seven. "While it's true we're making inroads into the African-American community we haven't before, a lot of African-American thought is impacting what we think as Green, everywhere," says Phil Huckelberry, the Illinois Green Party chairman. He says Greens want better funding for education and social services, for instance, and see urban food deserts as an economic problem to solve.

Jones says his interest in politics dates to first grade, when he spotted Mayor Harold Washington getting out of his car to visit a school down the street from his grandparents' house. "That's the day I saw Jesus," he says. He raced home to get a camera, but when he returned the mayor was already engulfed in an admiring throng. Jones waited till Washington was departing and was rewarded with a pat on the head from the mayor.

But Jones refers to Chicago's current crop of black politicians as "field hands for the Democratic Party." Whitney's 10 percent in 2006 got his attention. He liked that the Greens didn't rely on corporate donations the way the major parties did. He called the Greens last year and said he wished to challenge Congressman Bobby Rush, one of the representatives he finds lacking. In part he was inspired by how Obama had dared to take on the congressman, against the odds, in the Democratic primary in 2000. (Rush got 61 percent of the vote, Obama 30 percent.) But party leaders asked Jones to run for senate instead, figuring the higher-profile race would get more attention for both Jones and the Greens.

Jones told himself he'd get most of the black vote, as well as the white college-town and lakefront liberals who form the base of the Green Party. With four candidates—including Libertarian Mike Labno—splitting the vote, he thought he just might come out on top. A poll in June showed him getting 14 percent—high for a Green candidate, but less than half of what Kirk and Giannoulias were each getting. He thinks his sinking numbers since then are due to how he's been closed out of the debates and neglected by the media.

Jones grew up on the south side, a block from the Ida B. Wells housing project. He never knew his father. His mother gave up custody, and Jones was raised by his grandparents. "I figured he'd go into politics, he liked to talk," his mother, June Jones, says. When he was 13, he was working as a junior spokesman for the No Dope Express Foundation, a youth education group, when he attracted the attention of public radio producer Dave Isay.

Isay was looking for a black kid who could convey the story of poverty on Chicago's south side. Jones recruited his best friend, 14-year-old Lloyd Newman, and with Isay's equipment and guidance they created the ten-day audio diary Ghetto Life 101. The winner of numerous awards, it's still considered one of public radio's greatest hits.

A year after that documentary aired, a five-year-old resident of Ida B. Wells, Eric Morse, was thrown to his death from a 14th-floor window by a ten-year-old and an 11-year-old after he refused to steal candy for them. Jones called Isay and asked if he and Newman could do another documentary, exploring the killing. That documentary, Remorse, won a Peabody Award and a Robert F. Kennedy journalism award. The two stories together were adapted into a book, Our America, in 1997 and a Showtime movie of the same name in 2002. "LeAlan is extremely gifted," Isay says. "I'm as proud of him as I would be of my own brother."

Jones played football at King High School, where Gangster Disciples, Stones, and Vice Lords roamed the halls. "That's where I learned diplomacy," he says. "I was cool with all of them, and they were cool with me." He studied criminology at Florida State University, but struggled living away from Chicago, skipped classes, and flunked out his junior year. He returned to Chicago and later got into Barat College in Lake Forest, where he earned a bachelor's in interdisciplinary studies in 2003. Since then, he's lived on fees from occasional speaking engagements, a couple paid internships, book royalties, and some work for the BBC, including a follow-up documentary, Out of the Ghetto, that aired in 2008.

In 2002 his grandmother died, leaving behind two relatives who'd been in her care. At her request, he became the boys' guardian. "To whom much is given, much is required," he says. One of them, Robert Gregory—the Simeon quarterback—is a distant cousin. The other, his nephew, Jheri Jones, is now 20 and working at a car wash.

The setting for Jones's two famous documentaries, the Ida B. Wells project at 39th and King, is all but gone now, razed as part of the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation, under which most of Chicago's notorious housing projects have been demolished. Some of the residents were resettled in new mixed-income developments near their former homes, but many have been scattered across the metro area, breaking up extended families and communities. To Jones, the Plan for Transformation is a clear example of Democrats exploiting African-Americans. He says it's benefited politicians, banks, developers, and real estate agents. "The only people who didn't profit," he says, "were the residents of public housing."

Jones thinks the federal health care legislation signed into law in March will be ineffective. He says he'd vote to repeal "Obamacare" and promote the single-payer bill drafted by Michigan's John Conyers and Ohio's Dennis Kucinich. He wants greater federal investment in public transportation, solar power, and wind power: "I want to see a wind farm on Lake Michigan." He owns an 11-year-old Mercedes, but it broke down in September, and lately he's been riding buses or trains or walking instead of driving. From his home in Auburn-Gresham, he and Gregory walk the mile to Simeon every day. "I'm living a more green life," he says.

He'd support community banks, which he thinks could help local businesses and bring more jobs to working-class neighborhoods. He believes his two opponents lack an understanding of life in depressed areas. He says Kirk understands government through the lens of Kenilworth residents seeking to protect their wealth and dismisses Giannoulias by saying he's mistaken if he thinks he can gain an understanding of the black community by shooting hoops with Obama and his friends. Obama, of course, supports the Democrat.

Barring a surprising victory by Jones, the Senate will again be without a single African-American. He thinks African-Americans have unique problems that are likely to be neglected without an African-American in the senate.

Harold Lucas, a black community activist and lifelong south-sider, worked with Jones on the board of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, a group that strives to bring tourists to the south side. Lucas says his heart is with Jones but his head is with Giannoulias: "I think [Jones] is a useful breath of fresh air. I'm concerned he may still be too young. . . . I do applaud him for running, and he is expressing the needs of the community as a native son. [But] I will probably hold my nose and vote for Giannoulias."

Jones has encountered that viewpoint frequently, and it's wearing on him. "If I can't win a race where you have two people who have such a lack of character, and I can't get support from the African-American community . . ." His sentence goes unfinished.

While the other Greens watch the election returns on November 2 from Logan Square headquarters, Jones plans to stay put at Simeon, watching football tapes to prepare for the second round of state playoffs. At the nadir of his campaign, he told me he'd give up politics after this election. He said he was unwilling to allow corporate powers to compromise his views the way he thinks Obama has. "I'm not going to change my stance to be viable politically," he said. He was even thinking that after Gregory graduated from Simeon in 2012, he might leave Chicago and try to find a place more in line with his progressive values, where he could just coach some high school football.

But a week before the election, he began to see merit again in his pursuit of office. "I've been running for this for 20 years," he said. "I don't know that I'll give it up that easily."

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