Alex Jackson: An everyman fire chief

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2008 - 10:01 PM

Minneapolis' new fire chief rose to the top of his department only after working to create promotional opportunities for other black firefighters.

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The Minneapolis City Council is set to appoint Alex Jackson as the city’s fire chief today. Jackson, known for his wit, has worked in clubs as a stand-up comedian.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Minneapolis firefighters cherish tradition, as you can see from the antique badges and helmets in the department's lobby. ¶ That tradition excluded black firefighters until a lawsuit begun in 1968 broke through hiring barriers. Then came the promotions fight and Alex Jackson. ¶ Jackson was in the forefront of that fight in the mid-1990s, negotiating for black firefighters shut out by traditional testing procedures He thought he was fighting for the next generation of firefighters. ¶ Wrong -- as Jackson's expected confirmation as chief today by the City Council will prove.

You could call Jackson the accidental chief. As a youngster, he felt his interests ran more toward being a cop or joining the military. He had to be nagged into applying to be a firefighter by his father and father-in-law. And even after negotiating for promotions for other firefighters of color, he took his time in seeking his own promotion to rig captain. Instead, he developed a second career as a stand-up comedian.

But if it took 27 years for Jackson to decide he wanted to run the department, other firefighters are quick to praise his appointment.

"I know a lot of people are excited about Alex. He's a fireman at heart," said rig driver Tim Dziedzic. "He's worked his way up through the ranks and he's got a lot of respect from the ranks. He had a good rapport with the everyday firefighter out in the station.... He was a firefighting fireman."

Meet Jackson at a council presentation and he comes across as self-effacing. Once he's back in the office, he rips off his tie and a sense of humor shows.

Council President Barbara Johnson saw that when she and Jackson went to Allianz Life to accept what they thought would be a $20,000 donation from the company and employees. After the company presented $40,000, Johnson and Jackson were asked if they could stick around for photos.

"For $40,000, we'll do a movie!" Jackson quipped.

That quick humor was honed in the fire barns where firefighters spend 24-hour shifts together, relieving the stress of dealing with burning buildings or hazardous materials with humor.

"The humor is all around you," Jackson said. He spent years playing comedy clubs around Minneapolis and elsewhere, and has entertained on cruise ships.

But Jackson was dead serious when the job of creating promotion opportunities for black firefighters was thrust upon him. Despite hiring advances, most black firefighters were only able to advance to driver.

Changing tradition

Rickie Campbell, Jackson's predecessor as president of the Minneapolis African American Professional Firefighters Association, filed a complaint of bias about written testing procedures and was joined by others.

That thrust Jackson into the role of helping to argue that there were other ways to judge competency than written tests.

"The Fire Department is steeped in tradition and change is usually resisted and it's slow," Jackson said. Even though firefighters braved burning buildings together, "You were often called affirmative-action babies and that was one of the nicer things," he recalled.

A finding in their favor of probable cause for bias led to what Jackson called "massive changes" in promotion procedures. He credits Rocco Forte, then the assistant chief and a native North Sider, for willingness to make those changes.

Yet it took Jackson himself years more to make captain. He said he was turned off because he had seen how the system had been stacked against black firefighters. "My dad was upset with me," he said.

It had been his father's urging that got Jackson to apply to be a firefighter. William Jackson, now a minister, had worked on an ambulance for the county and kept emphasizing the pay and benefits of public employment. Jackson, who married young and had two children, said the responsibility of caring for family had been ingrained in his upbringing, which he describes as "southern by tradition and black by nature."

He did what?

He spent his first 13 years living with relatives in Missouri before moving to Minneapolis and then Brooklyn Center. He recalled an environment in which families looked out for one another. He recalls how quickly word spread by phone to his mother, Jill. "I'd walk in the door to hear her say, 'He did what?'"

Jackson's rise to the top of the department accelerated after Forte was named chief in 1998. In 2000, he took a temporary assignment recruiting firefighter applicants. His team succeeded enough to help end decades of federal oversight of the department's hiring.

Jackson was named deputy chief for personnel in 2003 and assistant chief in 2007. He is nearing the end of a fire science degree course at Hennepin Technical Institute. He remarried at age 50 in June, moving from downtown Minneapolis to live in St. Michael with his wife, Tonya, a Brooklyn Center police officer.

He takes pride in the changes he and others wrought in the department. "Both racially and gender-speaking, our department is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was, and leaps and bounds ahead of departments across the country," he said.

Still, it surprised some when Mayor R.T. Rybak nominated Jackson to be chief.

Ron Edwards, who long helped oversee the implementation of court-ordered hiring changes and often a critic of Rybak, was one.

"I'll be damned," he said when Rybak nominated Jackson. "You talk about making somebody feel good."

Jackson shared the credit. "I'm deeply honored. I'm a very blessed man. ...I've had a lot of support," he said, listing his family, colleagues and friends. "Collectively, I just say, 'Thank you.'"

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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