Matteson, Ill. – Gun control advocate and former state representative Robin Kelly effortlessly claimed Illinois empty 2nd Congressional District seat Tuesday in a special election race with low voter turnout.
Kelly declared victory shortly after polls closed. Late Tuesday evening, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, she led Republican candidate Paul McKinley with 70 percent of the vote, compared to his 22 percent. The remainder of the vote was split among three independent candidates and one Green Party candidate.
“We not only won an election, we took on the NRA, we gave a voice to the voiceless, and we put our communities on a brand new path to a brighter day,” Kelly told supporters Tuesday evening after declaring victory.
Stepping into ethically-challenged shoes
After clinching the nomination in February, Kelly, 56, easily won the race in the heavily-Democratic district left open by embattled former congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. The son of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson resigned from his seat last November citing health reasons, after 17 years leading the district, and amid a federal investigation into his campaign finances.
In February, Jackson Jr. plead guilty and was charged with scheming to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses. His wife Sandi was charged with one count of filing false joint federal income tax returns.
A staunch gun control advocate, Kelly caught the eye of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Independence USA PAC bankrolled a nearly $2 million effort to block gun rights advocate and former Democratic State Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who was considered the frontrunner early in the race. But Kelly has maintained that she did not seek Bloomberg’s support.
“I attribute the victory to my hard work, the hard work of my staff and the hard work of my volunteers,” she said after giving a speech to supporters.
A victory for gun control advocates
An Obama-backed advocate of gun control, Kelly’s been in favor of a ban on assault-style weapons and universal background checks for gun purchases. During her campaign, she consistently spoke of wanting stricter gun laws.
In recent months, Chicago’s gun and gang violence issue has received national attention. While addressing the crowd, behind Kelly stood Nathaniel and Cleopatra Pendleton, whose daughter, Hadiya, was shot dead in February, one week after performing at President Barack Obama’s Inauguration festivities.
A district in the spotlight
Since then, the president has come to Chicago to speak about violence on a post-State of the Union tour visit. First lady Michelle Obama attended Pendleton’s funeral and will be in Chicago Wednesday to address youth violence and how businesses can work together to create more opportunities for Chicago’s youth. The Pendletons were not available for comment Tuesday.
When Kelly takes the oath of office on April 11, she said her top three priorities will be to set up constituency services locally, continue her fight for gun control and come up with a plan to strengthen the local economy and bring more jobs to her district.
Since the district has been without representation since Jackson Jr. took a leave of absence last June, Kelly has a tough road ahead, part of that being to help restore some of the residents’ faith in leaders of the district.
“I’ll never let you down”
“I know for some of you, your faith in your leaders is a little shaken. Dr. King once said that ‘Only in the darkness, can we see the stars.’ Well, you all, you are the stars,” Kelly told supporters. Continuing, she said, “Through your support, you put your trust in me. I thank you for that and I promise that I’ll never let you down.”
“Of course she’s going to have a hard road ahead,” said 2nd Congressional District resident Zabeola Coleman, who also resided in Kelly’s former district, “but I know she’s the right person for the job.”
Before becoming the first African-American in state history to become chief of staff to a constitutional officer, then-Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Kelly represented the 28th House district.
Republican contender Paul McKinley could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Renita D. Young is a multimedia journalist based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung