By Don Terry
As a boy growing up in the long shadow of the Ida B. Wells public housing development, LeAlan Jones, the Illinois Green Party candidate for the United States Senate, learned at an early age to ignore naysayers.
Participants listened to candidates' speeches during the Illinois Green Party convention Loyola University in Chicago.
"If you come from the ghetto, people are always doubting you," Mr. Jones said. "I never listened to them. I was too busy."
So go ahead and tell him the political facts of life: that he is wasting his time and has a scant shot at winning President's Obama's old Senate seat in November.
Then point out to him that at 31, he has little name recognition and even less money. Finally, remind him, "for his own good," as he says a group of young black Democrats did a few weeks ago over lunch at a Greek restaurant, that he has a bright political future because he is young, gifted and black. But that if he keeps on with this Ralph Nader-Don Quixote business and stays in the race, he could take crucial votes away from the Democratic nominee, Alexi Giannoulias, in a skin-tight election. He will be nothing but a spoiler and then all bets are off -- all bridges burned.
Because his grandparents raised him to be well-mannered, Mr. Jones said he tried to listen politely to any advice. But he cannot promise that he will not lose his temper as he did with the young Democrats.
"Unfortunately, I used a few expletives to refute their spoiler assertions," Mr. Jones said.
He never expends much energy on self-doubt. "I'm not cocky," he said. "I'm confident."
That is why, even as a boy with a mentally ill mother, a father he never met and so many trigger-happy gang members roaming his South Side neighborhood that walking to school was like "walking through the Gaza Strip," he had no doubt that he was going to be a success, rather than a statistic.
At 13, he started his climb up and out. He and his best friend, Lloyd Newman, teamed up with a producer from New York City and made an award-winning documentary for National Public Radio, "Ghetto Life 101," a 30-minute tour through the other America.
A few years later, Mr. Jones, Mr. Newman and the producer followed with a radio documentary about the death of 5-year-old Eric Morse and the two boys -- ages 10 and 11 at the time -- who in 1994 dropped him out of a 14th-floor window at the Wells housing project.
Not much has changed in the intervening decades, Mr. Jones said, whether Democrats or Republicans have been in power.
"People don't want to buy milk and bread from those establishments anymore," he said, referring to the two major parties. "Their goods are rotten. The Green Party is the new convenience store on the block. We have the freshest fruits and vegetables."
By his 18th birthday, Mr. Jones and his reporting partner, Mr. Newman, had won a Kennedy Award and a Peabody for their radio journalism. Later, they wrote a book, "Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago," based on their documentaries.
Mr. Jones said he lives off book royalties and speaking fees. He has been a motivational speaker since he was a child, starting with an organization called No Dope Express. "I live very, very frugally," he said. "I've gone to the mattresses for this campaign."
Mr. Jones is not the stereotypical Green Party member. He supports, for example, "conceal-and-carry" laws, which allow registered gun owners to carry weapons for protection.
"I've never carried a gun and don't want to," he said. "I've always used diplomacy. I only support conceal and carry as a last resort. But there are those in our society who look at people as prey. They must be stopped."
On other issues, Mr. Jones is Green all the way, from protecting the environment to advocating a single-payer health-care system to bringing the troops -- and private contractors -- home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Robert T. Starks, professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University, said neither Mr. Jones nor his party was "on the radar screen" in the black community.
"But if he keeps getting his name out there," Professor Starks said, "he could be a factor, especially among young people."
Mr. Jones has been in the Green Party for only about a year. He joined initially to run for the United States House of Representatives from the South Side, but the party asked him to set his sights on the Senate because the Green Party had almost no presence among blacks and the party could help him more in a statewide race.
"We did pretty poorly on the South Side the last election," said Patrick Kelly, the party's spokesman. "I think that is going to change this time."