Jesse Jackson opens up on 2020 and the changing Democratic Party

By Alex Thompson

CHICAGO — The Rev. Jesse Jackson has lost a step.

The 77-year-old two-time presidential candidate’s roaring sermons have become more muted and mumbled. His walk has become slow, unsteady. Parkinson's disease has taken its toll. At a news conference here over the weekend with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, she held up the microphone for him when he spoke. Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition event on Saturday at the 4,000-capacity Apostolic Faith Church drew only a few hundred people.

But when it comes to the Democratic Party and its 2020 presidential primary, Jackson and his progressive organization for social change are more relevant than ever as the party embraces the issues he ran on three decades ago.

“The ’84 campaign broke the sound barrier,” he said in an interview after the Rainbow PUSH event, which featured Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. “Part of the whole idea was to sow seeds that would germinate.”

That’s why, even though Jackson may not command a podium or draw crowds as he once did, at least six presidential candidates are joining him during the annual Rainbow PUSH International Convention, which ends Tuesday. It’s also why candidates emphasize their ties to his presidential campaigns.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont talks about his endorsement of Jackson in 1988 while he was mayor of Burlington; Vanity Fair noted in its cover story of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke that he displays at home the picture of him meeting Jackson as a kid when his dad served as Texas co-chairman of Jackson’s campaigns; and Klobuchar mentioned in a speech on Saturday that her political mentor, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, managed the Minnesota primary for Jackson.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York is set to appear with Jackson on Monday. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., is scheduled to address Rainbow PUSH on Tuesday amid community anger back home over a police officer’s shooting and killing of a black man while not having his body camera turned on to record it.

In a wide-ranging interview about several of the 24 Democratic candidates and the most diverse presidential field in history, Jackson defended Buttigieg.

“What happened there is not his fault,” he said, blaming structural problems of longtime segregation in the city’s housing and the fact that most of the city’s police officers live outside the city, making them what he called an “occupying force” (Indiana law prohibits cities from requiring officers to live in city limits). “He handled it with humbleness — you know, ‘I failed,’” Jackson said, referring to Buttigieg’s remarks at the presidential debate last week. “But he failed not just because he wasn’t on it; he failed because of structural abnormality, and that’s why I think the press has some role to put issues in context.”

Jackson was less forgiving of former Vice President Joe Biden, who joined Jackson at a convention event on Friday. Speaking about Biden’s record on busing — which has become a flashpoint after Sen. Kamala Harris of California confronted him at the debate — Jackson said that Harris “established Biden on the states’ rights side of history,” which “cannot stand the test of time.” He framed Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing as part of a larger debate over the federal government’s trying to create racial equality.

“He’s for voluntary busing, I’m for court-ordered busing — well, everyone’s for voluntary busing,” Jackson said. “[T]he federal government had to order the abolition of slavery, the federal government had to order the right to vote, they had to order the desegregation of schools and jobs and contracts. So ‘voluntary’ assumes that those who are oppressive have some will to move based on moral values, and that does not happen.”

Jackson added that Biden had done “a lot of good things.”

The candidate’s campaign has noted that as a senator Biden advocated for the Voting Rights Act and other federal programs to compel equal treatment of people based on race, but that he merely felt that busing was an ineffective program for integrating schools.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Al Gore, Jese Jackson and Michael Dukakis join hands before a debate in New York City on April 13, 1988.

The controversy over Biden’s past opposition to busing is representative of the larger shift in the Democratic Party toward confronting racial disparities, and is another sign of how it has come closer to what Jackson campaigned on in the ’80s. Remedying the racial wealth gap, redlining practices, abusive policing and mass incarceration of people of color are now part of most candidates’ platforms and their stump speeches.

Reparations for slavery, which Jackson campaigned on in 1984 and 1988, have been embraced by candidates and were the subject of a recent congressional hearing in the Democratically controlled House. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, one of the many white men running, has been on the campaign trail giving out copies of a recent biography on Frederick Douglass.

Beyond issues of race, top Democratic contenders also echo Jackson’s support for a government-run single-payer health system and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. In many ways dismissed or forgotten over the decades, the Jackson campaigns have reemerged as an ideal for many activists on the far left in the Trump era.

“In some significant ways, the Jackson campaign was an answer to the question of what an alternative strategy for the party, one rooted in people rather than money, might have looked like,” Ryan Grim, the progressive journalist and Washington bureau chief for The Intercept, wrote in his new book, “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.” Drawing parallels between the Jackson campaign and the current debates in the Democratic Party today, Grim wrote: “It was one that excited Democratic voters, but had them wondering if Jackson was truly as ‘electable’ as the safe [Michael] Dukakis.”

Jackson himself said he had no plans to endorse anyone in the primary, but he gave Warren very high marks after her speech on Saturday.

“Personality is the conduit through which information gets — she has a personality that’s magnetic, and she’ll be in this race to the end,” he said. “I don’t know how it’ll end up, but she’ll be a factor in the outcome of this race.”