Commentary: What I Learned From Jesse Jackson Jr.

Why the Chicago congressman's fall from grace should inspire you to run for political office.

Posted: 02/21/2013 05:51 PM EST
Commentary: What I Learned From Jesse Jackson Jr.

I first met Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. years ago when he invited me to participate in one of his annual "braintrust" panels during Congressional Black Caucus week.

I was inspired. Jackson was a young, up-and-coming politician with a promising career and a fresh, young new voice. We had much in common. We are the same age, born a few months apart in the same year. We're both African-American. We both love politics. We're both progressive at heart. And we both have spent some time in the world of activism.

And we were both early supporters of Barack Obama. While much of the Democratic establishment, Black and white, threw its support behind Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election, Jackson aligned himself with then-Senator Barack Obama.

I always thought Jackson was one of the good guys. Like Obama himself, and Cory Booker in Newark, the new crop of Black politicians were more secular and pragmatic than their parents' generation of leaders who had risen from the civil rights community or the Black church. The new leaders were well-educated, post-segregation African-Americans who could speak to people of all races.

But politics is a difficult and often misunderstood profession. Elective office requires a great deal of personal sacrifice, which is why many of us decline to enter. And those who do enter sometimes become ensnared in the trappings of power.

I considered running for office myself back in 1990, when I was a young summer associate at an influential Washington law firm, whose most famous partner, Ron Brown, had been the first Black chairman of the Democratic National Committee. One day I had a meeting with Brown and told him of my political aspirations. He told me not to do it. "Go make some money first. Politics will always be there," he warned me.

I was turned off by his advice. I didn't care about making money. I wanted to make a difference. So shortly after I graduated from law school, I quit my high-paying law firm job and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to work for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. When Clinton got elected, I moved to Washington to work in the White House. I thought I made the right decision. But after all these years in politics, I've never run for office.

Maybe Ron Brown was onto something. Sadly, it seems personal wealth has become a prerequisite to political office. The median net worth of the 94 incoming members of Congress sworn in last month was more than $1 million, while the median net worth of the typical American household was just $66,740. Is there any wonder Congress has become so out of touch?

Members of Congress earn $174,000 a year and some, like Jackson, use this salary to maintain homes in both their congressional district and in Washington. It's not a bad income, but it's not a way to get rich either, which may explain why some seek alternative means to enrich themselves.

But the biggest sacrifice is not financial; it's personal. It's the loss of personal time or the loss of privacy as your political opponents dig through your background for any hint of a scandal to bring you down. We've created perverse incentives for politicians. Either we elect boring, squeaky-clean people who haven't really lived or we elect liars who tell us they are. As the liars eventually become exposed, our faith in politics and politicians continues to decline.

In an era in which cynics exploit political scandals to undermine our faith in government, it is tempting to assume all politicians are corrupt. But this is not true. Our government is only as good as we are. And while some politicians have fallen astray, some have overstayed their welcome, and some need to go, many others still aspire to high ideals.

That's why we need more people to run for office, not to run away from it. Far too many barriers to entry have been set up to discourage us from politics, but we cannot allow these obstacles to force good people to retreat from public life. From the local school board to the presidency, we need more good people, especially people of color and minorities, to engage in politics. And most important, we need people who choose politics for the right reasons.

I don't know what happened with Jesse Jackson Jr., but we should not allow his fall from grace to discourage other smart new political figures from entering politics. In a democracy, we can't just complain about our government. We have a personal duty to make it better.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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