The ignominious conviction of Rod Blagojevich brings to a merciful conclusion the traveling circus that had become the former governor’s life. From his often painful media interviews to his ill-fated turn on The Celebrity Apprentice, it seemed as if the shameless and awkward Blagojevich had one core competency: drawing attention to himself. Although Blago is hardly the first Chicago politician to be laid low by scandal and graft, he is unlikely to be the last.
But the former governor’s downfall may yet mean curtains for another product of Chicago’s political machine. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., long viewed as having aspirations for higher office since being elected to Congress in 1995, has found himself badly tarred by the former governor’s corrupt efforts to fill the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after he was elected president. Initially accused of offering money to induce Blagojevich into appointing him, the allegations surrounding Jackson were soon broadened.
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The scandal forced him to cop to an extramarital affair that all but doomed his hopes to run for Chicago mayor. Now, he faces the very real prospect of an ethics probe that threatens to shadow him for the remainder of his career.
The full extent of Jackson Jr.’s ethical woes remains to be seen. Having said that, it places the congressman in conspicuously dubious company. Over the last few years, more than a few black congressmen have found themselves ensnared in ethics violations — the most embarrassing of which featured Charles Rangel, the raspy-voiced dean of the New York Congressional delegation, at its center. Jackson’s case is only just the latest example of just how thoroughly the miasma of corruption has infected several high-profile African-American House members.
Given the allegations against him, it may have behooved the telegenic 46-year old to keep his nose to the grindstone. Yet the fruit of the aging civil rights icon loins has found himself at the center of new and head-scratching controversies. In one particularly memorable speech from the House floor that has since gone viral, Jackson questionably linked unemployment to the rise of the iPad only weeks after claiming the device was “revolutionizing” the country. In another bizarre soliloquy, the Chicago congressman enumerated a clutch of dubious “rights” that he argued should be added to the Constitution. The remarks were odd to say the least, given that Jackson is an attorney. His comments on the iPad also betrayed a fundamental ignorance about the dynamics of an advanced economy.
Then again, public statements and ethical lapses such as those exhibited by Jackson have become sadly par for the course when it comes to the modern day elected class. Political elites have completely lost their sense of shame, and often appear to revel in their bad reputations. Coming so shortly after Democrats suffered a loss of historic proportions last year — and on the heels of Anthony Weiner’s humiliating resignation from the House — Jackson’s problems threaten to remind voters exactly why they fired the last Congress.
But the ethical hot water in which Jackson finds himself immersed also indicates something far more serious. There is a false consciousness that confers a sense of entitlement on black elected officials. Far too many lull themselves into believing they are irreplaceable and invulnerable. At least in once sense, they are correct: these same politicians are re-elected with the overwhelming support of their constituents.
Many congressmen of color — Jackson included — represent poor and crime-ridden districts that fail to realize tangible changes in their socioeconomic status. Regardless, public officials like Jackson are returned to office again and again, despite poor personal decisions and manifest professional failures. It rightfully begs an all-encompassing question: why?
For countless years, voters of color have convinced themselves that voting for black public officials meant swearing an oath of unquestioned fealty to them. Yet somewhere along the way, these elected officials took this loyalty for granted. Community empowerment has given way to complacency and political ignorance. The net effect is that politicians like Congressman Jackson are blissfully unaware of the upper limits of their behavior. They know, with a wink and a smile, that voters will give them a pass.
With a shocking degree of ease, black elected officials know they can manipulate their way back into office by claiming either victimhood or — that most devalued of political currencies — racism. It is far easier to claim “The System” is conspiring to bring down black politicians than to confront a hard truth: far too many are doing nothing for their constituents, but everything for themselves.