In 1998, Jesse White was elected to lead an Illinois Secretary of State’s office that was mired in scandal.
Four years earlier, a truck driver who had paid a bribe to obtain an Illinois license caused a crash that killed six children near Milwaukee. That led to an FBI investigation into a licenses-for-bribes scandal dubbed “Operation Safe Road” – and in the weeks after White’s election, people began pleading guilty. The corruption probe eventually led to the downfall of White’s predecessor, former Gov. George Ryan, who was sentenced to prison after a single term as governor.
Meanwhile, the everyday experience at Secretary of State offices around Illinois was every bit as bad as stereotypes suggest. We can sum it up in a word: brutal.
In the 21 years since, White has brought drastic changes for the better. The scandals are over. Use of technology has decreased wait times at offices. Stronger DUI laws, reforms in teen driving guidelines and truck driver licensing practices have made the roads safer for all. The expanded organ and tissue donor program has grown to more than 5 million people and saved lives.
White has shown integrity many times as well, including in 2009, when he refused to certify Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate in the wake of revelations the governor had tried to auction off the seat to the highest bidder.
Voters have recognized White’s service and character time and again, handing him landslide victories in six statewide elections. Amazingly, he has received more than 60 percent of the vote in each of his five re-election bids.
White, a Chicago Democrat, became the first African-American elected secretary of state in 1998. Now in the first year of his sixth consecutive term, he has held the post longer than anyone in state history. He still works daily for the people of Illinois, leading a state agency that provides more direct public service than any other.
He has a decades-long track record of serving with honor and competence. In fact, he has accomplished more in terms of public service than most people could hope to accomplish in five lifetimes.
White served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division, and later in the Illinois National Guard and Reserve. He was a third baseman in the Cubs’ farm system who played two seasons of Triple-A ball in Salt Lake City and learned from the great Ernie Banks.
In 1959, White founded the internationally acclaimed Jesse White Tumbling Team to provide a positive outlet for children living in public housing in the Chicago area. The tumblers still perform today, with more than 200 young people set to make more than 1,500 performances this year.
Before he was a public servant, White was a student at Alabama State College in Montgomery in the 1950s, where he experienced racial discrimination in the Jim Crow South. While there, he attended a church where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor, and participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott organized by King and Rosa Parks.
White has said it was King who inspired him to enter public service and help people.
Rather than be turned off by racial injustice, White worked to make America better. He eventually spent 16 years in the Illinois General Assembly, followed by eight as the Cook County Recorder of Deeds before his record-breaking run as head of Illinois’ largest government agency.
There are few politicians with a biography as inspiring as Jesse White, who has taken Illinois from the nadir of Operation Safe Road to truly providing safe roads for citizens.
We are calling on the Illinois House, Senate and Gov. J.B. Prtizker to declare a statewide “Jesse White Day.” The Honorable Jesse White is truly an Illinois treasure, and the time is right to recognize his remarkable service to our state.
All Illinoisans, and particularly younger ones, should appreciate the value of White’s lifelong service and leadership. The recognition will not only spotlight an exemplary individual – it might inspire others to follow in his footsteps, as King’s leadership inspired White himself.