Jesse White stands out in Illinois politics not only for being the first African American to be elected secretary of state, but also for steering clear of scandal during more than 36 years in public office.
Staying above reproach in a state where one former governor is in prison, another faces sentencing on multiple corruption convictions, and jaded voters suspect most politicians are on the take has helped generate landslide election victories for White.
“You have to show honesty and fairness,” White said in a talk at the Frick Center on November 15, part of the College’s Democracy Forum. An even-handed approach is essential to dealing with the public and employees, he added.
White, a Democrat, was re-elected to a fourth term as secretary of state in 2010. At the time he said that that campaign would be his last, but a few months ago White announced that he would seek re-election again—in 2014, when he will be 80.
The secretary of state’s office issues drivers’ licenses and license plates. White has earned praise for making the office more efficient for Illinois motorists and for cleaning up a department marked by corruption before he took office.
He noted that every year, he revokes or suspends the driving privileges of more than 500,000 motorists who break the law, and that he has fired more than 700 employees during his 12 years in office for violating laws or the employee code of conduct.
“My philosophy of life is that when you take on a job you also take on the responsibility that comes with it,” he said in his talk, “Democracy in Action.” That, he said, includes enforcing laws that may be unpopular. “If you step over the line, you will have to pay the price,” he noted.
White was accompanied by Lee Daniels, former speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and currently a distinguished fellow and adjunct political science professor at Elmhurst College, as well as special assistant for government and community relations to Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray.
Daniels, who served with White in the Illinois General Assembly, cited White’s scandal-free record as a key reason for his popularity. White was elected to the Illinois House in 1974.
“I think that speaks to why he’s been re-elected so many times to different offices. He has always shown a high level of integrity,” Daniels said. “Even though I’m a Republican and he’s a Democrat, I think the world of him.”
White was a teacher and administrator in Chicago Public Schools for 33 years. He is well-known for founding the Jesse White Tumbling Team, an acrobatic performance troupe that involves at-risk youth in gymnastics and athletics and has performed all over the country.