WAYNE, Neb. – Outside of Chicago, the state of Illinois’ first congressional district hasn’t registered in the minds of many people. That’s understandable, considering the district’s House of Representatives seat has been held by the same man for nearly 30 years.
“I’m running for Congress against a guy who beat Barack Obama,” Jahmal Cole said in an interview with News Channel Nebraska.
But after the 38-year-old political newcomer launched his candidacy for the long-held position last month, several people in northeast Nebraska – and beyond – began to take notice.
Cole, a community activist serving his hometown of Chicago, threw his hat into the ring to try and unseat longtime Congressman and fellow Democrat Bobby Rush, a race many political pundits have written off as an unlikelihood.
“I’m not really running for Congress to make friends,” Cole said. “I’m not really running to be a part of the status quo. And I’m definitely not running to be patient. I’m running because I’m about that action.”
Less than two decades ago, Cole was facing a different set of long odds when he was a freshman at Wayne State College and walked into the office of then-head coach Rico Burkett, now an assistant coach for the Colorado State women’s basketball team under former WSC women’s coach Ryun Williams.
“I never knew anything about him,” Burkett said. “He just told me he was going to make the basketball team.”
Burkett may not have envisioned that he had a congressional candidate in his locker room at the time, but he said he knew there was something special about Cole.
“In all honesty, back in those days, he was really involved in music,” Burkett said. “If I was a betting man, I would have probably bet the farm that he would’ve been doing something in the music scene…but his persistence was probably the thing that really stood out even after watching him kind of play in pick-up in his tryout. He may not have been the best basketball player but there was just a different type of drive and different type of mentality about his hunger and his goals.”
While Cole’s tenacity caught the eye of Burkett, it was the off-court persona of his young coach, a fellow Black man, that stuck with Cole.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Cole said of Burkett. “He taught me how to stop making excuses. Rico has a family, and he was always just showing me, not telling me, showing me how to be a man.”
“Rico didn’t have to let me walk on to the basketball team at all, but I think that was his form of activism,” Cole said. “He was like ‘Yo, I’m going to pull somebody up by the bootstraps.’”
But while Cole had his eyes on the basketball floor in Rice Auditorium, his trajectory was further shaped by a duo located in the Humanities Building on the other end of the WSC campus.
“I remember the day he showed up in my office,” said Chair of the Wayne State Communication Arts Department Dr. Deborah Whitt, speaking alongside her husband, former WSC communications professor Ron Whitt.
“He had no idea what major he wanted. He seemed pretty low. And I said, ‘Jahmal, what do you want to do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I want to be a motivational speaker.’ And I said, ‘Well, you’ve come to the right place.’ And he never looked back. He just loved the department, loved the program.”
After graduating from Wayne State in 2005, Cole came back to his hometown of Chicago. He wrote a book about his experiences at WSC and sold it on a street corner outside of a Foot Locker.
“Standing on corners selling books is tough,” Cole said. “You don’t make no money. People shoot at you. You get criticism. You cry. All that stuff happens.”
“On a good day, two people would say yes out of a hundred. On a great day, three out of a hundred people would say yes. On a great day, three out of a hundred would say yes. No matter how great I did, 97 people still said no to me. I wanted to quit every day. But I remembered my lessons from basketball, man, just being resilient and standing guard at the door of my thoughts.”
But Cole’s book caught the eye of leaders in the Cook County Jail, and he was invited to speak to inmates.
“Nobody in the jail that was going to prison for 20 years had ever been to downtown Chicago,” Cole said. “They’d never been on plane. They’d never waited for a taxi. They’d definitely never been to Nebraska. Their whole worldview was shaped by their neighborhood, and that was tragic. I decided to do something about it.”
Cole’s next move was to start My Block My Hood My City, a nonprofit that gave teenagers in his neighborhood exposure to other experiences and walks of life. Founded in 2009 and incorporated in 2013, My Block My Hood My City aims to give opportunities to underprivileged youth, focusing on STEM, arts & culture, citizenry & volunteerism, health, community development, culinary arts, and entrepreneurism.
“I couldn’t get them out the jail, but I could get them from the barbershop to the neighborhoods on educational field trips, and I could expose them to different parts of the city,” Cole said. “If there’s all these currency exchanges in your neighborhood and no banks, I would take kids to banks so they could see what jobs are available.”
And while the differences were notable, Cole couldn’t help but notice the similarities between his Chicago neighborhood and rural Nebraska.
“The kids that grow up Inglewood or Roseland on the south side of Chicago can be just as isolated as kids that grow up in Wayne, Nebraska or Norfolk,” Cole said.
It was that experience of trying to improve his community through exposure to other areas, though, that inspired Cole to seek public office.
“I’ve never gotten a federal grant in 10 years,” Cole said. “I give out millions of dollars a year and I’ve never gotten a federal grant. That just goes to show you there’s so much red tape to cut through.”
And while he’s left Wayne, Cole remains on the minds of those who inspired him several years ago. Burkett and Williams invited Cole to speak to their team in Fort Collins last year. The Whitts were among Cole’s first campaign donors.
And Wayne remains on Cole’s mind too.
“I miss Wayne,” Cole said. “It allowed me to step outside my comfort zone and expose myself to different cultures, different cuisines, different professions, all kinds of stuff.”
What would it mean to the small northeast Nebraska campus if Cole made another move, this time to Washington?
“I think it would be big,” Ron Whitt said. “It shows that out of small places, you can get there from here. As long as you’ve got the drive and determination like Jahmal. We have countless other students who leave here and they become PhDs. They become lawyers. They become ministers, comedians, on-the-air people. It’s fantastic.”
“For me, it’s pride and progress,” Burkett said. “Growing up, there weren’t a lot of role models that look like me that were able to make moves and make differences in areas that I got to see on a daily basis. To be able to see a young man that’s come from humble beginnings and has overcome a lot of obstacles, and has kind of had to do it on his own… He just had his own way and his own will that he was going to make this happen, and he’s living his dreams.”