Once Told to Move to the Back of the Bus, Jesse White Became an Illinois Institution

CHICAGO — Jesse White tells a story about being a Black college student from Chicago, newly arrived in Alabama in the segregated South of the 1950s, and casually claiming an open seat near the front of a Montgomery city bus.

The driver, who was white, turned and pointed out a sign saying the front section was reserved for white passengers. “Can’t you read?” the driver asked.

“I said, ‘I gave you my fare,’” recounted Mr. White, now 88, who will retire on Monday as the Illinois secretary of state. “My job is to pay for the ride,” he told the driver. “Your job is to drive the bus. I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ll fix you.’”

As things turned out, Mr. White managed to get where he needed to go, staying up front until the bus reached its destination downtown, where he safely exited.

About seven decades after that bus ride, Mr. White is reflecting on a career that has included stints as a soldier, professional baseball player and teacher, as well as nearly half a century in public office. Along the way, he has usually managed to get where he wants to go, making unlikely allies and remarkably few enemies in the bruising world of Illinois politics, all while avoiding major public scandal in a state notorious for corruption.

Mr. White threw out a ceremonial first pitch before a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2016.Credit…David Banks/Associated Press

Mr. White came through it all as perhaps the best-known and best-liked officeholder in Illinois. Looking back, he said his approach to governing exemplified a kinder, more flexible brand of politics that could be an antidote to today’s partisan rancor.

“You cannot walk into a room and take all the marbles off the table — you have to leave some for someone else,” Mr. White, a Democrat, said at his office in downtown Chicago, where decades’ worth of plaques, photos and sports mementos lined the wall. “You have to figure out a way to reach a happy medium.”

Already well into his 60s when first elected secretary of state in 1998, Mr. White frequently received more votes than any other statewide candidate. He once carried every Illinois county, even conservative ones with a natural skepticism of Chicago Democrats.

It helped that Mr. White had spent part of his childhood in central Illinois, that he had served in the General Assembly and in county office, and, most of all, that he was widely known as the founder of the Jesse White Tumblers, a youth gymnastics team that he started in 1959 and that became a mainstay of Midwestern halftime shows and parades. The team’s members, many drawn from struggling Chicago neighborhoods, must maintain good grades and swear off gangs, drugs and alcohol.

“Everybody feels good about the Jesse White Tumblers,” said Jim Edgar, a Republican who served with Mr. White in the Illinois House of Representatives in the 1970s and who later became governor. “He deservedly gets the credit.”

Mr. Edgar said the Illinois secretary of state position, which he once held himself, was particularly well suited to political longevity, with its general lack of hot-button political fare and built-in opportunities for name recognition. Mr. White’s name, for instance, is written atop all 8.9 million Illinois driver’s licenses in circulation.

Members of the Jesse White Tumblers performed before a Cubs-Pirates game at Wrigley Field in 2012. Credit…David Banks/Getty Images

Unlike in much of the country, the secretary of state in Illinois does not administer elections, but is in charge of issuing licenses to drivers, among other duties. During his tenure, the longest in state history, Mr. White has been a vigorous supporter of registering drivers as organ donors. The job also gave a chance for his personality to shine, political allies said.

“He’s a very affable person, very good-humored, very friendly, not confrontational,” said Toni Preckwinkle, a Democrat who is president of the Board of Commissioners in Cook County, which includes Chicago.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who in his first bid for statewide office campaigned alongside Mr. White, recalled watching him joke easily with strangers and share his personal cellphone number.

“He would pull me aside and just say, ‘Make yourself accessible everywhere, talk to as many people as you can, hand out as many cards as you can,’” said Mr. Raoul, a fellow Democrat.

When Mr. Raoul asked for help campaigning at churches in Chicago, he said that Mr. White organized an itinerary so intense that he could stay at each service for only 10 to 15 minutes.

Mr. White said his approach to politics — focus on people, form relationships across party lines, do not expect to get everything you want — could prove useful in today’s hyperpartisan climate, especially in Washington, where he said the actions of former President Donald J. Trump had placed the future of American democracy in question.

Mr. White inherited an office with a sordid history of corruption: Employees of the office had been caught selling commercial driver’s licenses, and his Republican predecessor, George H. Ryan, was eventually convicted of federal crimes related to his stints as secretary of state and governor. But in his six terms as secretary, Mr. White managed to avoid a similar downfall — no small feat in Illinois.

Mr. White at the Thompson Center in Chicago. Credit…Akilah Townsend for The New York Times

Still, Mr. White made headlines in 2009 when he refused to sign his name to the appointment papers of Roland Burris, who had been named to the Senate seat that Barack Obama was vacating to become president. Mr. White said he did not sign because the governor making the appointment, the Democrat Rod Blagojevich, had been accused of trying to trade the seat for personal gain. A solution was later reached — Mr. White’s office provided a document with a state seal and a mass-produced signature of the secretary — and Mr. Burris was allowed to join the Senate.

The furor over that seat made news again in 2018 when The Chicago Tribune revealed that J.B. Pritzker, who was later elected governor, had floated Mr. White’s name to Mr. Blagojevich in a phone call recorded by the F.B.I. During the call, Mr. Pritzker suggested that if the governor felt pressure to appoint a Black person to the Senate, Mr. White would be the “least offensive” option.

The remark was seized on as insulting by some politicians, though Mr. White repeatedly defended and praised Mr. Pritzker, a Democrat who was elected in November to a second term as governor. Mr. Pritzker, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, said in a statement that it “has been the honor of a lifetime to work alongside Jesse.”

As the end of his term approached, Mr. White, who did not seek re-election, spoke openly about the racism he faced as a young man.

He recounted having to stay with Black families while playing minor-league baseball even as his white teammates were put up in hotels. He described for The Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ how, as a player in the Chicago Cubs organization, he was told he would never make it to the majors after he was spotted eating lunch with a white female journalist who team officials mistakenly thought was his girlfriend. And he told The Chicago Tribune that he discussed with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose church he attended in Montgomery, Ala., the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of a bus.

But not quite everything Dr. King said resonated with the young Mr. White. When Dr. King talked about his plans to desegregate Montgomery’s transit system, he described his philosophy of nonviolence, of turning the other cheek.

“I raised my hand and said: ‘Dr. King, I’m from Chicago. You know, we don’t operate like that,’” Mr. White recalled to The Times. “He said: ‘Jesse, just follow the script. Everything will be fine.’”

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