Obama's Political "Godfather" In Illinois

Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, left, and then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago confer while on the Senate floor during a session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., in this July 1, 2004 file photo. Jones helped Obama learn the ways of the state legislature and gave Obama the chance to work on the ethics legislation and death penalty reforms that Obama now boasts about in his presidential campaign.
The president of the Illinois Senate is sitting in his statehouse office, talking in gravelly tones about political strategies and counter-strategies. Out of nowhere, the theme from "The Godfather" begins playing.

It turns out to be the ringtone on his cell phone - an appropriate song for the man who amounts to Barack Obama's political godfather.

Emil Jones Jr. helped Obama master the intricacies of the Legislature. When Democrats took control of the state Senate, Jones, though he risked offending colleagues who had toiled futilely on key issues under Republican rule, tapped Obama to take the lead on high-profile legislative initiatives that he now boasts about in his presidential campaign.

And when Obama wanted a promotion to the U.S. Senate, Jones provided critical support that gave the little-known legislator legitimacy, keeping him from being instantly trampled by the front-runners.

"He's been indispensable to Barack's career. He wants to see a black president before he gets called home," said fellow state Sen. Rickey Hendon, a Democrat.

While Obama got vital help from Jones, the two men have sharply different political styles, and Jones may not be a political asset in a White House campaign.

Jones, 72, is an unabashedly old-school politician. A former sewer inspector for the city of Chicago, Jones has relatives on the state payroll, steers state grants to favorite organizations and uses his clout to punish enemies and bury GOP legislation.

Obama supporters see the alliance as an example of Obama's ability to get things done by working with all kinds of people. Critics see it as hypocrisy - Obama refusing to speak out against the kinds of abuse he claims to oppose.

"His voting record is down-the-line unquestioned support of the Cook County machine," said Steve Rauschenberger, a former Republican state senator.

The two first met in the mid-1980s. Jones was already in the state Senate and Obama was a young community organizer on Chicago's South Side.

Obama apparently didn't think much of Jones. In his memoir "Dreams from My Father," Obama dismisses him as "an old ward heeler" who had little clout left after backing the wrong candidate.

But Jones was impressed by Obama and cooperated with Obama's Developing Communities Project on some issues. Later, Obama was elected to the state Senate, where Jones was then the minority leader and most powerful black member of the Legislature.

"When he first came, we sat down and he said to me, 'You know I like to work hard. Feel free to hand me any tough assignments on legislation,"' Jones recalls. "That was unusual, for a person to say 'I like to work."'

Jones gave him a chance, assigning Obama to a bipartisan task force in charge of drafting ethics legislation.

It was not a glamor job. Obama would be asking legislators to accept new restrictions and asking good-government groups to compromise, leaving no one entirely happy. But legislators ended up passing the state's first major ethics overhaul in years, including limits on gifts to officials.

Jones also let Obama work on establishing a state version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and lobby Republicans to soften their legislation adding work requirements to the state welfare system - an effort that ended with GOP senators praising Obama.

Several senators said Jones and Obama, who represented neighboring Chicago districts, weren't particularly close. They didn't socialize much, and the legislative opportunities he gave to Obama were similar to those available to other promising senators.

But their relationship changed in 2002.