It's 5:10 Saturday evening and Jeremy Alexander sports a black suit, gray shirt, and gray tie--the look of a comer. He's wheeling a black Mazda Protege north from his South Shore home up to Spoon, a restaurant near Division and Wells, where he hopes to have a word with John Edwards. Alexander has a personal stake in Edwards's presidential campaign. If Edwards gets 15 percent of the vote in next month's Illinois Democratic primary, Alexander could go to July's Democratic convention in Boston as a delegate.
Alexander first met Edwards at the party's convention in LA four years ago. "I've liked him since 2000, when he was being considered to be a vice presidential pick by Al Gore," he says. "He's young, exciting. He supports all the Democratic values. He believes in college for everyone. He supports rain forests, clean air, clean water. He wants to ensure that children are being covered with health care coverage. He wants to make sure that prescription drugs are available. He's a firm believer of civil rights."
Alexander's been a political junkie since age five. His parents, Arlene and Arnold, were fired up about Jimmy Carter's run for the White House and took him along when they voted. As a seventh grader at Saint Thomas the Apostle elementary school in Hyde Park, Alexander learned parliamentary procedures at student meetings. He held leadership positions in black student groups at Mount Carmel High School and Grinnell College, and received awards for his volunteer work with Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century and Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization. In 1996 he worked locally for Bill Clinton's reelection campaign.
While completing a master's at DePaul, he got two letters of recommendation--one of them from former Democratic National Committee chairman David Wilhelm--and snagged a White House internship in 1998. He then spent ten months as a presidential staff assistant and another eight as an aide to energy secretary Bill Richardson. When Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, asked Alexander to work in Iowa, he logged four months as a field coordinator there. Among other tasks, he networked with black farmers in Boone, Iowa, near Ames. "You put yourself on a tractor, an old Ford tractor, and turn it on, and see how it feels," he explains. "You sit there and listen about what the farmer grows, what kind of livestock the farmer raises."
By January 2000 he'd returned to the Energy Department. After Gore lost, Alexander found himself out of a job. He went to work as an aide to Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston, an old family friend. Early last year Alexander left to start the Lunch Bunch Political Action Committee with two friends; they wanted to raise money and funnel it to political organizations across the country.
Alexander arrives at Spoon, grabs a name tag, and starts to work the room. Near the side entrance, he shoots the breeze with an old friend from the Chicago Assembly, a social group for black men. Someone asks about Grinnell's endowment. A former Dean supporter says he showed up to hear what Edwards had to say.
Around 6:15, Alderman Richard Mell walks through the front door a few steps ahead of Edwards, who's shaking hands and posing for pictures. When Edwards spots Alexander he stops to talk. Then he and Mell walk up a small stairway to a space bordered by red rope. Mell grabs the microphone and calls Edwards the next president of the United States. "In Chicago, we love the underdog!" Alexander, who's standing near the front of the crowd, cheers with everyone else. Edwards speaks in a slight drawl about economic disparity that's symbolized by two health care systems, two school systems, two economies. "He's out of touch with the real world," Edwards says. "The solution is to outsource George Bush." He leaves around 6:30.
The next day Alexander is gushing. "He recognized me," he says. "He put his hand out, and I shook it. I always give my name. I told him, 'I was just honored by the mere fact that I've been slated to be one of your delegates here in Illinois.' He was really pleased with that and thanked me."