Her name was Lovana, but everyone called her Lou.
There haven't been many politicians like state Rep. Lou Jones in this world. The Chicago Democrat was completely out front about whatever she was doing, and I don't think she ever minced a single word in her entire career. She took on issues that almost nobody else would touch, and she used every ounce of her being to force the rest of us to see some harsh truths that we preferred to ignore.
Rep. Jones passed away last week after a long bout with pneumonia.
Two years ago Jones traveled to Dwight Correctional Center to meet with Debra Gindorf, a 40 year-old suburban woman who, 20 years before, had poisoned her children to death and then tried taking her own life. Rep. Jones was often considered a quintessential "black Chicago" legislator, but Gindorf is a white woman from Zion. The visit wasn't about race, but about what Jones considered to be justice.
Gindorf and her supporters on the outside believe she was suffering from an extreme case of postpartum depression when she killed her kids, and Jones fought hard for her release - and was openly critical of Gov. Blagojevich for ignoring Gindorf's petitions.
How many politicians would take up a cause like that? You wouldn't even need a whole hand to count them.
Jones never altered course even after her House district changed to include thousands of new upscale residents. I was one of those lakefront constituents for a while, and Jones believed we could take care of ourselves, and, more importantly, thought we should support her ideas and her ideals.
Jones was relentless, and, as a result, just about everybody had a run-in with her at one time or another. I had my share. Maybe more than my share. She had no fear. She'd tell you exactly what was on her mind, and she could knock you right back on your heels.
Jones once so completely flustered a previously unperturbable Chicago TV journalist that the reporter was left a sputtering, speechless mess. I won't tell you what Lou said, but it was probably the most outrageously hilarious thing I've heard in my 16 years in this business.
Rep. Jones always reminded me of a blues singer. It could have been the hard, handsome lines in her face which practically gave us a map through the tough times, but also showed she had come out the other side. Maybe it was the way she called everybody "baby," like an oldtime musician would do. Or the way she dressed and the jewelry she wore. Or the way she held herself. She had a South Side Blues sensibility about her that let you know she was speaking from hard personal experience. You also knew you were in the presence of "somebody" when Lou was in the room. She couldn't be ignored, even if you tried.
She often used her tough-talking reputation to her advantage, but truth be told the woman had a heart as big as Illinois. Many people don't know that she was raising her seven grandchildren, plus other kids she took in from time to time.
After looking over her record in the House and thinking about Lou for several hours, I concluded that Rep. Jones was, in her own way, a grandmother to Illinois' forgotten - the poor of all colors, those with HIV/AIDS, children without parents, mothers with nowhere to turn, teens who've run afoul of the law, the wrongly accused, the doomed. To her, just about everybody had some good in them, and it bothered her to no end that they were so cavalierly discarded.
But she also realized that those in need required role models. Every year Jones sponsored a Woman's Day luncheon in her district that featured successful women from all walks of life.
And then there was that smile of hers. The House will never replace that big, gorgeous smile.
You could disagree with her politics, been irritated at her ways, even personally tried to avoid her when she was on one of her rants, but everyone who knew her will admit that her passing creates a giant hole in the Illinois House. I'm not sure we'll ever see her like again.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com.