Eric Jakobsson, a U of I professor, Urbana City Council member, and spouse of outgoing State Representative Naomi Jakobsson, met with me as part of Smile Politely's ongoing series on local public officials.
Smile Politely: When did you move to Urbana?
Jakobsson: We moved here in 1971. I had been a sort of typical, very young academic in that my wife and I moved and moved. But we finally stuck here. We’ve been here for almost 43 years.
The reason I came here is clearly because of the university. It was the chance to be at a tier 1 university and have the chance to pursue the ideas I wanted to pursue at that time and to help thos ideas evolve.
SP: How did you get involved in the Urbana City Council?
Jakobsson: My time on the city council is intertwined with my wife Naomi’s political career. There are women of a certain generation who came to C-U as faculty spouses and could not have careers at the university because of what were then nepotism rules. Now the university tries to accommodate spouses, but then it was exactly the opposite. So lots of smart, talented women who came here as spouses went into politics; for example, Laurel Prussing, the current mayor of Urbana, moved to this community for that reason.
I was involved in politics as a supporter of Naomi, and eventually Laurel asked if I would be interested in filling a vacancy on the council. That was around 2010. Initially I was going to say no, thinking I couldn’t fit it into my life. But then I slept on it and said alright. I thought that since I have opinions about all these political issues, maybe I should put myself in a position where my opinions actually count beyond just talking about them privately.
SP: How does your professional background as a professor influence your political philosophy?
Jakobsson: I think everything in my life is informed by science. I start out by being evidence-based, considering the facts and logical inferences from those facts. I’m definitely on the political left because I see that the countries where there is publically supported childcare, pensions, and retirement have folks that are healthier, live longer, and are very, very productive. So it seems to me that that’s the direction we ought to go. And that view puts me on the left side of the political spectrum. And as far as things like racial/gender prejudice—those prejudices immoral, but also stupid, they’re uninformed.
My political views really come from trying to look at the world straight, in very much the way I look at the world as a scientist. I’m really a scientist first, and almost everything comes from that.
SP: What other community involvement have you had besides the University and City Council?
Jakobsson: For many years I worked almost alone with my biology. During that time I had an avocation of acting. I did many shows at the Station Theatre and Krannert.
There came a point in the 1980s when other people became more interested in my work, such as granting agencies, so I got more people working with me and I started doing more travelling for work-related meetings. Then the acting went by the wayside; I haven’t been as involved in the last decade or so.
SP: What issue has most captured your attention during your time on city council?
Jakobsson: The thing I really love on city council is when things come up that could be sources of great conflict and we figure out how to resolve them so people on all sides are more or less happy. Two big issues we’ve had in southeast Urbana have to do with major crime problems and problems with sub-standard housing, which go together.
One of the aspects of this is that there were major problems in shopping districts with people who were panhandling very aggressively, so we had to do something about that or it would become a sort of death spiral for the neighborhood. The mayor drafted an anti-panhandling ordinance, which many community activists attacked as being prejudicial against disadvantaged people. So we had hours and hours of meetings about this issue.
We finally removed the word “panhandling” from the ordinance and replaced it with “aggressive solicitation.” Words count and have significance. Panhandling is something that only poor people do; soliciting is something that all sorts of people do: university administrators solicit donations and things like that. So we changed the language and were careful about how we defined which types of solicitation were prohibited. We also made it so that first offense would be a warning. So it would be more like getting a traffic citation and than a traffic ticket. What happened was that everyone was pretty happy with the final version of the ordinance.
That was the most satisfying individual issue that came to the council because it was really hard and we listened to everyone, and we were able to work out something that worked. I think the Urbana City Council is one of the best deliberative bodies, as far as bodies of government, that I’ve ever seen or heard of. People really talk to each other in a problem-solving way. People do have differing political philosophies and different priorities that they bring to council, but people do listen to each other.
SP: I want to ask about some of the lower points during your time on city council. Has there ever been an issue that you felt your ward was very much in favor of or very much against, but you felt like you had to vote in the opposite way?
Jakobsson: One dicey issue on which I ended voting opposite the expressed wishes of many of my constituents had to do with permitting gambling machines in Urbana. I approached that issue as a scientist. I’m not in favor of gambling — gambling is bad. But the real issue was more complicated than “gambling is bad.” Champaign decided to have gambling machines, and we had to decide what to do in response to their decision. We had many restaurants and bars that said the issue was important to them and that they would consider moving to Champaign if we didn’t allow gambling machines in Urbana. One of the major businesses that we were concerned about was Black Dog, which we love. In fact, we tried very hard to either acquire property or facilitate the acquisition of property to get the Black Dog to expand in Urbana.
So many establishments we valued wanted to put in machines. I did a lot of research online on the value of these machines, and I became persuaded that overall, these machines don’t increase incidents of problem gambling—they actually replace other types of problem gambling. So given that we could face the loss of business establishments to Champaign and that the research that said these machines don’t really increase problem gambling, I decided to support this issue. As a price for my supporting this issue, I asked that there be prominent postings in establishments with these machines about the symptoms of problem gambling and a hotline to call.
But, definitely the preponderance of the communication from my constituents was that they were opposed to it.
SP: Can you comment on how you see the relationship between Urbana and its sister city, Champaign?
Jakobsson: I think the Urbana City Council debates things much more completely than the Champaign City Council. Some people complain about the length of our meetings, but one constraint we work under is the Open Meetings Act, which indicates that no more than two of us are allowed to discuss any aspect of city business unless it is in an open meeting, and that includes email communications. We take that very seriously. The only time we are able to discuss anything all at once is at the public meetings. So we have a lot of open discussion. If you compare our meetings to Champaign City Council meetings, you’ll see we have much more elaborate discussions leading to the decisions we make. I have no idea how they arrive at all the decisions they do with so little discussion.
SP: I want to ask you about your involvement with the Rosenberg/Ammons race. You’ve made some comments about Ammons’s educational background. Could you comment about what motivated you to get involved in that race?
Jakobsson: I’m a political junkie in the sense that I research everything. So I researched Carol Ammons as well as Sam Rosenberg. And what I found about him is very good — but of course, he’s young and inexperienced. Everything that I could find out about Sam, including from members of the legal community and law professors, was all good. Everyone said he had tremendous integrity and that he was smart and fair.
One of the most compelling things about Sam came from someone who opposed him in court: a defense attorney who argued against Sam in several cases that Sam was a prosecutor for. He felt he was actually more interested in justice than scoring points, and I thought that was an important testimony.
SP: Some people in our community feel, however, that because Sam Rosenberg’s campaign is being funded in large part by House Speaker Michael Madigan, Rosenberg would be beholden to Madigan rather than being an advocate for our community. Could you comment on that?
Jakobsson: People here have a lot of misunderstandings about the Speaker and how he operates. The Speaker doesn’t care about how people vote. What he cares about is that he wants you to win reelection so that he continues to have a big Democratic majority.
If you look at votes in the general assembly, you’ll find that very rarely that Democrats vote as a block, which you’ll find very often on the Republican side. The reason the Republicans often vote as a block is that when Republicans take a caucus position, they will discipline fellow Republicans who don’t vote in accordance with the caucus.
The only time the Speaker will ask people to vote a different way if they think that person will jeopardize their reelection. So I don’t think the Speaker will influence Sam’s issues, votes, and advocacy. What the speaker may do is make sure a bill gets bottled up and caught in the Rules Committee so it never makes it to the floor if he doesn’t like it. The speaker absolutely controls the Rules Committee. But once something makes its way out of Rules, members of the Democratic caucus are completely free to vote how they like.
SP: So, getting back to your take on the Ammons/Rosenberg race, which I’m guessing is important to you because your wife Naomi is leaving the seat they are competing for, can you comment on why you think Rosenberg, and not Ammons, has received support from Speaker Madigan, and why you decided to research Ammons’s educational background?
Jakobsson: I think the reason she hasn’t received Madigan’s support is because he feels Carol was very likely to lose the general election. Carol has said very broadly condemnatory things about American society; she has a long history of statements that would be lethal in a general election. From what I know of the speaker, he thinks Sam would win the general election while Carol wouldn’t.
When I was doing research about Carol, I saw Walsingham appear on her CV, so went to their website, which has subsequently vanished, by the way, and started looking deeper. I came to believe that diploma was a diploma mill, in part because the web extension was .ac, which is an Ascension Island domain that is completely unpoliced.
When I found that evidence, I thought that Carol should drop out of the race because if you use a diploma from a diploma mill on your resume, they could fire you. It’s a serious thing.
SP: What do you see as the most important issues nationally, in Urbana, and in your ward?
Jakobsson: I think one of the most important issues is economic inequality—the growing divide between people who have ridiculous amounts of money and people who don’t have enough money to get by.
The other biggest issues are environmental. Science tells me that climate change is very real and is going to threaten the world’s food supply. As it accelerates, there are going to be a number of issues related to coping with water supplies and things like that.
In Urbana, we’ve tried to do things to save energy. We’ve negotiated with the electric supply company to get our electric supply from renewable resources.
And as far as economic inequality, we spend about $300,000 on non-governmental social service agencies, which is significant because Champaign spends $0. And we’ve got an inspection system for housing, so we use that to try to ensure that the housing stock is reasonable.
What we can do is obviously limited, but we are mindful of both of those issues.
SP: Who are your political heroes?
Jakobsson: Paul Simon. The reason I was so quick with that answer is that he was so thoughtful, combined ethical and moral standards with terrific political skills. His timing was just a bit off when he ran for president. He would have been a great president.
Another reason I mention him first is that I have been accused recently being prejudiced against people who don’t have college degrees. Paul Simon never graduated from college. My rebuttal of being accused of that prejudice is to offer this example.
My other political heroes are the great presidents—Lincoln, Washington. And Barbara Jordan, a congresswoman from Texas who is an incredible leader in her domain.
And of course people who were great leaders who pushed the government from the outside. There was a time, for example, when Ralph Nader was a hero of mine. But when he ran for president, he screwed everything up. So he was a social activist hero and a political anti-hero.
Actually, at one time Ralph Nader offered me a job. I was outside of politics and a social activist when I was young. It would have been a totally different life.
SP: Could you comment on your views on same-sex marriage, which recently passed in our county?
Jakobsson: I’m totally supportive of it. Naomi and I are members of McKinley Presbyterian Church. One of the things that attracted us to it is that long before it was an easy thing to do, they supported gay and lesbian relationships. And one reason that is important for us is that is that one of our children is lesbian, and we wanted to be in a church environment that was accepted of that.
SP: Hypothetically, if you had to vote on something being cut from the Urbana city budget, what would you vote to cut from the budget?
Jakobsson: We have a pretty lean operate in Urbana. But we have cut in response to the loss of taxes from Carle Hospital. For instance, we have one less person in our finance department. We eliminated out funding to the Champaign County Visitors Bureau. That was a tough vote for me. I traded my vote on that in exchange for some money for an in-house person to handle some issues relating to local tourism. And I think that gets us more bang for our taxpayers’ dollars.
On the other hand, we added a police officer because of the situation in southeast Urbana. I can’t say immediately what I would want to support cutting, especially since we would still need to be competitive with our sister city.
SP: What spaces in Urbana do you really enjoy?
Jakobsson: Flying Machine coffee. I enjoy Piato’s, and would enjoy they equally well if they had wireless.
I also love Dr. G’s Brainworks. We did lots of our Christmas shopping there. Often when we have a grandchild visiting from out of town, we take them shopping there.
And I love the new business environment downtown. There are really nice boutique shops and specialty stores; we’re acquiring a very nice downtown with respect to those kinds of buisnesses.