Raising Obama

Denny and Mike Jacobs recall playing poker with the future president in an era when government worked

 Mike Jacobs joins his father, Denny Jacobs, both former state senators, outside his home in East Moline. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Mike Jacobs joins his father, Denny Jacobs, both former state senators, outside his home in East Moline. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Denny and Mike Jacobs can remember when government worked in Illinois.

The father-son set of former state senators recall a time when government functioned for the betterment of the state and its residents. Denny Jacobs, who served in the General Assembly from 1987 to 2005, particularly lauds former Senate President Philip Rock.

“I think the biggest difference is the lack of camaraderie,” Denny Jacobs said, sitting down for a conversation along with his son Mike in his East Moline kitchen. “If you don’t know the guy on the other side of the aisle, you’re going to dislike him. ‘He’s a damn Republican.’ It was more of a give and take in those days.”

“I’ve seen a lot of change, and I agree with Dad that people used to speak to one another,” said Mike Jacobs, who was appointed to replace his retiring father in 2005 and served 10 years in the Senate. “Even staff, even secretaries. Everyone was friendly. We were all there doing something good for the state. But then it’s seemed what’s happened is we’ve all gotten into our individual huts.”

He said the political spectrum had increasingly divided into extremes on the right and left. “And guess what? Both sides are crazy,” he added. “Both sides.”

Denny Jacobs said typical of his era in Springfield was a running poker game that included Barack Obama, then a state senator. “Unfortunately,” he playfully added.

“People would say to me, ‘Barack’s so liberal.’ Well, he may be liberal, but he sure as hell ain’t liberal with his own money.”

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"People would say to me, ‘Barack’s so liberal.’ Well, he may be liberal, but he sure ain’t liberal with his own money."

Denny Jacobs (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

“Very conservative card player,” Mike added.

“He never had cigarettes,” Denny Jacobs said. “His wife didn’t want him to smoke.”

 He quickly added, however, “He’s a guy, in my estimation, whether he did right or wrong, he at least tried. And he tried with the people in mind. So how do you knock that? You can’t.”

Those card games also included Republicans, he pointed out, “and it made a difference.” They’d all typically haggle over bills and other measures while playing, and the following day it wasn’t unusual for one legislator to come up to another and say, “Tell me more about that bill you’re sponsoring,” leading to some horse trading on the floor that would actually see legislation passed.

The Jacobses said Republicans had settled on being the party of “no,” using the state’s fiscal crisis and pension problems as an excuse, with gridlock as a result. To score with the electorate, they’ve pounded home the point that Illinois is in awful financial straits, which perhaps it is, but that doesn’t mean the state as a whole is awful.

“I think you’ll find the naysayers, they just don’t know,” Denny Jacobs said. “If you get told often enough that Illinois sucks and Iowa’s great, you know after a while that Illinois sucks and Iowa’s great.”

He emphasized that it wasn’t a fair comparison to pit East Moline, Moline, and Rock Island in the Quad Cities against Davenport and Bettendorf across the Mississippi River. The Illinois side is the employer side, he said, and many east Iowans commute to Illinois and return home to houses where the property taxes are lower due to Iowa’s graduated income tax. At the same time, he added, retirees typically resettle in Illinois, where their retirement income isn’t taxed. He cited how Davenport is the third-largest city in Iowa, so Bettendorf, instead of being compared with Rock Island or East Moline, should be compared to a well-to-do Chicago suburb like Naperville.

Both blamed Gov. Bruce Rauner and divisive, anti-tax groups like the Illinois Policy Institute for dragging the state down.

“I don’t lay it all in his lap,” Mike Jacobs said, “but he spent an awful lot of money telling people how terrible the state was. When you tell people things are terrible, (well) when I was in office we had the lowest unemployment. Everything was going forward. We had the new university being built,” Western Illinois’s Quad Cities campus, which both agreed was a major addition to the area. “But people had this feeling that somehow Illinois was screwing up, and I think it’s because they’ve been told that. We need somebody to fill the state up with a little pride, even if it’s not a Democrat or a Republican.”

Both pointed to the MARK of the Quad Cities, a $30 million, 12,000-seat civic arena built 25 years ago with a large influx of public funding, as an example of a public-works project that paid dividends. They politely declined to take part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, because the project was so controversial at the time. Yet it’s come to pay for itself, even as it’s been renamed, ironically enough, TaxSlayer Center in a rights deal completed late last year. “Now, if you wanted to take that civic center out of this community, people would fight you tooth and nail,” Mike Jacobs said.

Denny Jacobs said it was simply about finding the political will to pay for the things people want their government to provide. “You have to pay the piper. If you want good roads, you have to pay for them,” he insisted. “You’ve got to come up with a different system, and you’ve got to pay the piper.”

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"I hope the naysayers don’t win."

Mike Jacobs (One Illinois/Zach Sigelko)

“I hope the naysayers don’t win,” Mike Jacobs added. “My Republican friends spend so much time saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. That’s terrible. It’s going to cost us money. This is bad, bad, bad.’ But when you’re in leadership, sometimes you’ve got to cost people money. Sometimes you’ve got to make tough decisions. Not everything’s wonderful. And I think that’s why Rauner’s had such difficulty in Illinois, is that he’s been unable and unwilling to lead, because they’re so used to being against everything. There’s nothing that he’s for. That’s what gets everyone in Illinois in such an awkward position. We should all be on the same team and rooting for the best, and our rich people have done very well in Illinois, and if they haven’t done well then how can they put so many millions of dollars into state campaigns?”

Even as proud residents of the Quad Cities, both took issue with attempts to divide the state between Chicago and the rest of Illinois.

“If you take Chicago out of Illinois, we would become Iowa,” Mike Jacobs said. “We don’t want to be Iowa.”

Denny Jacobs added that the region south of Interstate 80 gets much more back in state funding than it puts in, precisely because of the economic vitality of the Chicago metropolitan area.

“I’m 100 percent for the Quad Cities and always have been,” he said. “It’s a good place to raise your family. Illinois is really such a great state, especially when you include Chicago. Then you go down south to Rend Lake and throw a line in the water. We have so many things that we don’t take advantage of.”