Although Barack Obama's historic election will place an African-American in the White House, it will reduce the number of African-Americans in the Senate to zero.
That's an even lonelier number than one, and it is not a number that this nation should be proud of. So the question is: Does Obama's replacement in the Senate have to be black?
Some would argue yes. And Jesse Jackson Jr., a member of the House since 1995, began campaigning for the slot even before Obama won the presidency. Jackson, son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, was one of Obama's national co-chairmen and says he would be "honored and humbled" to replace Obama.
So he's an easy choice, a shoo-in for the job, right? Well, no.
The politics of Illinois is not quite that simple. And the top contenders for the job have a tangled web of relationships with the people who will have a voice in Obama's replacement, including Obama himself; Dick Durbin, the other Democratic senator from Illinois; Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, who officially will make the choice, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, now in his sixth term, who has, to put it mildly, a certain amount of influence in the state.
Rep. Jackson does not have a good relationship with Mayor Daley. They disagree on a huge local issue whether to build a new airport south of Chicago near Jackson's district or expand O'Hare and Jackson also toyed with the idea of running against Daley for mayor in 2007. At that time, Jackson brought up the touchy subject of fathers, saying that perhaps Mayor Daley was not proud of everything his father, the late Richard J. Daley, had done.
"His father was responsible for segregated policies of the city," Rep. Jackson said. "I'm sure the mayor is not excited about the shoot-to-kill order, the protests or how Dr. King was treated. I'm sure he is not proud of that."
Political attacks are one thing, but attacks on family are another, and in Chicago, neither is forgiven. (Jackson decided not to run against Daley, who was easily reelected.)
Gov. Blagojevich is not a fan of Jackson's either, and, personalities and feuds aside, the argument used against Jackson is that he would "lack appeal downstate" when he had to run for election to the Senate seat in 2010. Lacking appeal downstate is code for, "White people won't vote for him."
A Chicago political insider whom I trust says that Jackson is on a list of possible replacements for Obama but that Jackson has only an outside chance.
One intriguing name on the shortlist is that of Emil Jones, 73, currently president of the Illinois Senate. He was one of Obama's political patrons, is close to the governor and is an African-American, yet I got snorts of derision when I ran his name past some other Illinois sources of mine. That's because Jones is from the old school he started out as a sewer inspector, which is not bad training for a life in politics and is not a modern, ready-for-TV candidate, possessing an orator's tongue. He is a Chicago pol the ring tone on his cell phone is the theme from "The Godfather" but he would be a "place holder" only and would not run in 2010. He would fill the seat with an African-American and give the other contenders plenty of time to start their campaigns.
There is another name on the short list, however, and she is not an African-American.
Tammy Duckworth, an Asian-American, lost both legs in combat in Iraq she volunteered to fly helicopters because it was one of the few combat jobs a woman could get and was personally recruited to run for the House in 2006 by Dick Durbin with the enthusiastic support of Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who would go on to engineer her campaign; David Axelrod, who would become her media consultant; and Barack Obama. (Duckworth, like Obama, now opposes the war in Iraq.)
Duckworth lost narrowly and is now Blagojevich's director of veterans affairs.
So a lot of important names all come together when you start looking at Duckworth. But Jesse Jackson Jr. is not giving up. Jackson has gone so far as to commission a poll, which was released Tuesday, that shows him in the lead for the job. (If the poll did not show him in the lead, would it have been released?)
Anyway, the poll, by Zogby International, says that when given the choice of 10 possible candidates, 21 percent of likely voters in Illinois think Blagojevich should appoint Jackson, 14 percent say Blagojevich should appoint Duckworth, and everybody else is in single digits. (Emil Jones was not among the names polled.)
But the poll also provided some interesting ammunition for Duckworth.
According to the poll, Jackson has a 43 percent favorable rating and a 22 percent unfavorable rating, which gives him a net favorable of 21. Duckworth has a favorable rating of 31 and an unfavorable rating of 9, which gives her a net favorable of 22, a point higher than Jackson.
Many more people know Jackson than know Duckworth. Only 35 percent of those polled were not familiar with or not sure about him, compared with 60 percent who were not familiar with or not sure about Duckworth. So her net favorable could shrink. Or grow.
In any case, polls are not likely to matter much. This is not an election, it is an appointment, and there are a lot of people vying besides the three names I have mentioned.
But on Tuesday, which was Veterans Day, Obama laid a wreath at a memorial near Soldier Field in Chicago, and Duckworth was at his side. Because she is the state's director of veterans affairs, this made sense.
Obama could have selected someone else, however, or done the wreath laying alone. But he chose to lay the wreath with Duckworth and stand for a solemn moment with his arm around her.
So does Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate have to be black? Or does his election mean we are beyond such questions?