A series of controversies have left Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in an intense battle to win reelection in the Chicago-based congressional district he has represented for more than 16 years, facing a challenge from a fellow Democrat in a March 20 primary.
Jackson, Jr., who arrived in Congress in 1995 mainly known as the son of a famous civil rights activist, spent much of the last decade forging his own political identity as one of the most liberal members in the House and was considered a potential candidate for Chicago mayor, or as a U.S. senator from Illinois.
But then he was enmeshed in the scandal around then-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was later convicted for effectively trying to sell to the highest bidder the Senate seat Barack Obama left to become president. And while Jackson has not ever been shown to have done anything wrong, the controversy took a considerable political toll.
Debbie Halvorson, who represented another congressional district in the Chicago-area from 2007-2010 before losing her reelection, is challenging Jackson, and Chicago political experts are predicting a close race, though Jackson is likely to come out ahead.
The allegations are that Jackson offered to raise money or in some other way buy an appointment by Blagojevich to the U.S. Senate, although Jackson has never been charged or even accused of any ethics violations or criminal charges.
“I’ve never been accused of any wrongdoing,” Jackson says.
Halverson, who is white, initially entered the race when a poll by taken by her campaign in December showed that only 35 percent of people in the district said they would vote to reelect Jackson in the majority-black district, which due to recent redistricting is now only about 54 percent African-American.
The congressman had not only been placed under an ethics cloud by the Blagojevich scandal, but it was also revealed he had an extramarital affair.
That poll and the controversy sent the longtime congressman into overdrive to keep his seat. Jackson has always had one of the best voting attendance records in the House — only missing two votes over a 13-year period in his 16-year congressional career. But over the last few weeks he’s missed votes to see to work in his district.
Jackson has courted, and received, a series of key endorsements from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, perhaps most importantly, President Obama.
Pelosi endorsed Jackson, mentioning he should be reelected because of the “more than $940 million” in projects that have gone to his district. At only 46, Jackson is the most senior black member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and is set to move up further in seniority if re-elected as other Democrats retire.
Jackson and Halvorson’s recent meeting with editorial board of Chicago Tribune could help as well, as it showed a confident incumbent versus a sometimes unsure opponent. Jackson pointed to his performance at the endorsement session when asked what he wanted people to take notice of regarding the race.
“The great thing about the editorial board meeting was that they recorded it, so even the media themselves had to be honest about what they were watching,” he said confidently last week. “She has no answer for chronic unemployment in the African-American community, she has no answers for putting people back to work.”
Over the last two weeks, the two have debated who is the most loyal to Obama. Halvorson has touted her alliance to the president, then Jackson countered with a radio ad claiming Halvorson voted against President Obama 88 times. Halvorson denies that charge.
“I voted more than 90 percent of the time with the president according to the non-partisan source Congressional Quarterly,” Halvorson told the Chicago Sun-Times last week. “He’s lying, and he’s distorting my record.”
Jackson’s race is the first of what could be numerous challenges to Congressional Black Caucus members this year. Other Democrats are considering challenges to Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Laura Richardson (D-CA), Hansen Clarke (D-MI), John Lewis (D-GA), Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Lacy Clay (D-MO), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Mel Watt (D-NC) and Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX).