Jesse White Looks Back on Decadeslong Career in Illinois Politics

For the first time in two dozen years, Illinois will get a new secretary of state. 

Former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat, will be sworn Jan. 9 in to replace Secretary Jesse White, who did not run for reelection this year.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

White has continually made history: As Illinois’ most popular politician, winning all 102 counties in multiple election cycles; as Illinois’ longest-serving secretary of state; and as the first Black person to hold the office.

But he was hesitant about entering politics back in the ‘70s, when he says then president of the Cook County Board George Dunne encouraged him to run for state representative, and in a district that was 85% White, to boot.

“I told him ‘let me think about it, I have to go skiing this weekend. When I come back, I’ll let you know,’” White told WTTW News in a recent interview. “So there was a hill that I could not negotiate. For about 10 years, I’d go down this hill and I was unsuccessfully negotiating it. So on this particular day, I went down, went down 12 times without falling. I said, ‘if I can handle this hill, I can certainly handle the political arena.’”

White ending up running and winning, serving 16 years in the Illinois House, representing what he says was the most diverse district in Illinois – covering Chicago’s Gold Coast and Mag Mile as well as Cabrini Green, where he’d grown up after moving from Alton, near St. Louis, at the age of 7.

White went on to serve as Cook County recorder of deeds before running for secretary of state in 1998.

“My administrative experience as well as my legislative experience far surpass that of my opponent,” he said during a March 1998 pre-primary forum on “Chicago Tonight,” explaining to host John Callaway, why he'd be best for the job. “One of the things that I want to do in the office of Secretary of State is to make sure that the office is user friendly.”

Winning that race was not a given; that was the year then-House Speaker Michael Madigan took over as head of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Madigan and other powerful Democrats had another favored candidate in the primary, Tim McCarthy, who’d become famous as a Secret Service agent wounded protecting President Ronald Reagan in the '81 assassination attempt.

White said Madigan had originally told White he wanted a candidate from downstate, so White met with Madigan to express his disappointment when the party instead backed McCarthy. Madigan, White said, told him that he wanted to hold onto control of the House and that he believed McCarthy would help by winning over Republicans.

But it was White who won that race.

White said he and Madigan “buried the hatchet,” with the party giving $10,000 to help White beat GOP nominee Al Salvi.

“Beat him decisively, became the first African American secretary of state in the history of the state of Illinois. Now you know the rest of the story,” White said.

White’s full of stories.

There was the time he took issue with his pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., about King's non-violence-based plan to desegregate the Montgomery, Alabama transit system after Rosa Parks’ arrest.

When King explained his Gandhi-rooted approach, White said he raised his hand.

King called on him and said “‘Jesse White, what can I do?’ I said ‘Dr. King, you know me very well. You know I’m from Chicago. And we don’t operate like that.’ He said, ‘Jess, just follow the script and everything will be just fine.’ So that’s what I did, and we got involved with the civil rights movement,” White saaiad.

White said it reaffirmed for him that “in this wide world out there, we have to figure out a way to live in peace and harmony with one another, and never ever dislike anyone because of race, creed or color.” 

White, a father of three, is also full of stories about a lifetime excelling in sports.

He played basketball and baseball and taught gymnastics at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University); he landed there after other colleges said his 5-foot-8-and-a-half-inch frame was too short, despite his prowess on the courts at what’s now Lincoln Park High School.

After graduation in 1957, he went to Wrigley Field to try out for the Chicago Cubs, and out of some 300 ball players, becoming one of five to make it.

“Then four days before going to spring training, I was drafted into the military. So instead of going to spring training, I was going to basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. And while I was there I decided I wanted to jump out of airplanes,” White said.

He served in the 101st Air Division and in the Illinois National Guard, doing 35 jumps as a paratrooper before his after his discharge.

Upon his return, he spent time with the Cubs organization as a minor leaguer before going on to teach at Chicago Public Schools.

A veteran. A career as a professional athlete. Never losing a political race.

His name in near every Illinois residents’ wallet (He jokes with folks who meet him and say that he looks familiar that they can’t leave home without him.).

All resume top hits, but none are for what White’s best known.

It was during a summer job at the park district in 1959, when he was asked to put on a gym show.

What was to have been a one-time event evolved into the Jesse White tumbling team.

“They said ‘the kids see a lot of value in coming to the park every day to be with you. They admire you, they respect you, and they want to emulate you. So we were hoping you’ll continue,’” he said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll go one more year.’ And then, one more year and here I am 64 years later, with over 18,500 kids and … only 15 have gotten themselves in trouble with the law.”

Jesse White tumblers travel the world – Croatia, China, Israel.

“I remind them that they have to be leafless, smokeless and pipeless,” White said. “You know what I’m talking about: No drugs. And then I remind them that they have to be in school, on time every day, and have on their mind to get the best education possible.”

The Jesse White Tumbling Team offers a scholarship and tutoring program.

White said he uses a “tough love” approach.

While he doesn’t tumble anymore, he still regularly does an old army workout consisting of jumping jacks and push-ups.

As for his role as secretary of state: White says he's proud to leave without scandal, having grown an organ donor registry program (personal to him, given a transplant extended his sister's life for 23 years), implementing a graduated drivers’ license program for teens, and recently allowing residents to be able to book license appointments online.

White says he’s ready to pass the secretary of state torch to Giannoulias on Jan. 9, but he’ll be only a phone call away.

While he’s leaving office at age 88 (He’ll be 89 on June 23.), he plans to keep coaching his tumblers.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors