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The Political And Personal Demise Of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.

Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned his House seat last Wednesday amid health and ethics concerns.
Charles Dharapak
Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned his House seat last Wednesday amid health and ethics concerns.

It is always sad to watch a once-highly regarded public official, with seemingly unlimited potential, self-destruct. It's even sadder when that person offering so much hope represented a congressional district that has long been suffering economically, that desperately needed advocates on its behalf, and where the two previous incumbents left a trail of shame.

But Jesse Jackson Jr., the privileged son of a famed civil rights leader, has fallen from grace as well. Elected to Congress in a special 1995 election in his first bid for public office, he seemed likely to stay there for as long as he wanted. Once, he was talked of as a future mayor, perhaps a senator, or even a president. Now, his political career is over, having resigned his House seat last Wednesday (Nov. 21) amid health and ethics woes. He has been suffering from depression and is under federal investigation for the possible misuse of campaign funds.

Ironically, the beginning of the end for Jackson was the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president. With Obama leaving his Senate seat, it was left to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to name a replacement. And we watched, during those next three painful months, how Blagojevich tried to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder, a scheme that ultimately led to Blago's impeachment, resignation and imprisonment.

But the sordid affair tarnished Jackson as well. It was clear that he wanted the Senate appointment; how much he wanted it has been an ongoing federal investigation. Secretly taped phone recordings of the governor revealed Jackson — identified as "Senate Candidate 5" — as someone who was willing to "pay to play," i.e., raise money for the governor in exchange for the Senate seat. While Raghu Nayak, a longtime Jackson family friend, was said to have been the emissary that offered Blagojevich the promise of money for the Senate appointment, Jackson insisted from the beginning that neither he nor anyone associated with him offered the governor any financial incentive for the seat. "I did not initiate nor authorize anyone, at any time, to promise anything to Governor Blagojevich on my behalf," he said. But the investigation never went away.

And it apparently affected Jackson's health as well.

Jackson was first elected to Congress in 1995.  In his 2012 race, "Junior" was sufficient.
/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection
Jackson was first elected to Congress in 1995. In his 2012 race, "Junior" was sufficient.

Last June, after an easy primary victory (71-29 percent) over Debbie Halvorson — a former one-term member of the House who had hoped the ethics questions and the revelation of a Jackson extra-marital affair would return her to Congress — his office announced that he had taken a medical leave of absence two weeks earlier. He has not appeared in public since. For the longest time, no information was released about his condition or whereabouts, though we did learn that he had been treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for bipolar depression. He easily won re-election earlier this month over a Republican opponent but had not been on the campaign trail since the spring.

Then, last Wednesday, he released a statement announcing his resignation, which read in part:

"Over the past several months, as my health has deteriorated, my ability to serve the constituents of my district has continued to diminish. Against the recommendations of my doctors, I had hoped and tried to return to Washington and continue working on the issues that matter most to the people of the Second District. I know now that will not be possible.

The constituents of the Second District deserve a full-time legislator in Washington, something I cannot be for the foreseeable future. My health issues and treatment regimen have been incompatible with service in the House of Representatives. Therefore, it is with great regret that I hereby resign as a member of the United States House of Representatives, effective today, in order to focus on restoring my health.

During this journey I have made my fair share of mistakes. I am aware of the ongoing federal investigation into my activities and am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators, and accept responsibility for my mistakes, for they are my mistakes and mine alone. None of us is immune from our share of shortcomings or human frailties and I pray that I will be remembered for what I did right."

Nobody with the name "Jesse Jackson Jr." was ever going to go through life anonymously. But young Jackson was determined, from the moment he entered elective politics 17 years ago, to do it his way. He worked hard to bring economic development to his constituents, to improve water quality and access to transportation. He worked hard to get Obama elected to the Senate, and then president. All the while, there was the chatter that he often had mixed feelings about trying to live up to the expectations of his famous father.

During the 2008 campaign, when Congressman Jackson was an Obama campaign co-chair, Rev. Jackson was heard saying on an open microphone, "Barack's been talking down to black people ... I want to cut his nuts off." His son immediately and publicly blasted his father. "I'm deeply outraged and disappointed in Rev. Jackson's reckless statements about Sen. Barack Obama," he said. "His divisive and demeaning comments about the presumptive Democratic nominee — and I believe the next president of the United States — contradict his inspiring and courageous career." While saying he would "always love" his father, he emphatically said, "I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric."

Nobody who breaks the law is entitled to a seat in Congress. Aside from health concerns, Jackson presumably resigned knowing that the ethics investigation was more serious than he ever let on. But the tragedy is about what might have been. It was sad and heartbreaking to read about his rapid emotional and physical decline; the few people who knew what was happening, some fellow members of the Illinois congressional delegation, talked about terrible pain and the possibility that he would never return to the Capitol.

This is not to overlook the potential of criminal activity. But once upon a time, it seemed he had the opportunities to make a difference. Those opportunities were squandered.

Possible successors. Election officials, in a bid to save money, are thought to be pushing for a special primary election on Feb. 26 and the general on April 9, the same days local Illinois elections are scheduled. The Chicago Tribune's Katherine Skiba and Rick Pearson list "two political discards" as potential candidates, former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and Mel Reynolds, Jackson's immediate predecessor in Congress who resigned in 1995 following his convictions on having sex with a minor (more about Reynolds below). Also mentioned are Halvorson, state Sens. Toi Hutchinson & Donne Trotter, newly elected state senator (and former NFL player) Napoleon Harris, Chicago Aldermen Anthony Beale & Will Burns, former state Reps. David Mille & Robin Kelly, and Blagojevich's one-time attorney Sam Adam Jr. The Chicago Sun-Times' Natasha Korecki says that Adam is "unlikely" to run and adds Kurt Summers, chief of staff to Cook County Board Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle, to the list. The New York Times' Monica Davey mentioned Jackson's wife, Sandi Jackson, a Chicago alderman, or perhaps his brother, Jonathan Jackson. All are Democrats.

Cursed seat? This district has had three black representatives in its history, and now all three have been tainted with disgrace or ignominy.

Unlike Illinois' 1st Congressional District, which has had constant African-American representation since the 1928 election, this district (the 2nd, also on Chicago's South Side) gradually — but quickly — went from a white ethnic enclave to a black-majority CD. The black population in the district went from 40 percent in 1970 to about 75 percent a decade later; its propensity for regularly electing white Democrats ended in 1980. That year, it elected Gus Savage, an African-American community organizer and newspaper editor/publisher who had been waging war against the Richard J. Daley machine for decades, often running or managing quixotic campaigns. He won the 1980 primary by focusing on the fact that the organization's preferred candidate (Reginald Brown), though black, was handpicked by Ed Vrdolyak, a white alderman not known for sympathizing with black political goals.

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

Savage never moderated his outspoken and angry temperament and rhetoric, usually about race. He gave the keynote speech at a Nation of Islam convention in 1985. At the 1988 Democratic convention, he denounced vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen as a "reactionary Reaganite warhawk." The next year, when Ron Brown, the chair of the Democratic National Committee who was black, came into Chicago to appear with white mayoral candidate Richard M. Daley, Savage was quoted as saying, "When Ron Brown brings his Oreo you-know-what into Chicago, I'll guarantee I'm going to help organize a reception party for him at the airport and follow him all the way to some white hotel to denounce him for coming in." His firebrand personality served him well at home, with a strong core of supporters, but he was often dismissed in Washington as little more than an angry race-baiter.

That didn't go unnoticed with his opponents in the Democratic primaries, which seemed to be growing every election cycle. In 1988, a political consultant by the name of Mel Reynolds was among those black candidates who challenged him, even winning the endorsement of both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times in the process. But he lost badly in the primary, finishing a weak third. Reynolds returned in 1990, a primary that got even uglier, as Savage denounced him as a tool of outside interests and Jewish money. Reynolds lost again, 51-43 percent.

In 1992, on his third try, Reynolds finally ended Savage's congressional career. By then, Savage's attacks on the "white racist media" and "Jewish money" had worn thin. Plus, redistricting added white suburban areas to the district. But the tipping point may have been an incident three days before the primary, when two gunshots from a passing vehicle were fired at Reynolds while he was in his car. It shattered a back-seat window and Reynolds suffered a cut on his head. Reynolds refused to cast blame on Savage, saying only that the inflamed rhetoric may have helped incite violence. The Savage campaign accused Reynolds of staging the incident. In any event, Reynolds won in a landslide, 63-37 percent.

Reynolds was everything Savage was not. He was a Rhodes scholar and a college instructor, someone who pledged to tone down the ugliness and build coalitions. But he never got a chance to fulfill his goals. On Aug. 19, 1994, it was announced that Reynolds was indicted on 20 counts of statutory rape, solicitation of child pornography, obstruction of justice, among other charges. Police said Reynolds' sexual relationship with a female campaign volunteer had begun during the '92 campaign, when she was 16. The indictment also stated that Reynolds had told the girl to "provide false information to police" about the matter.

Reynolds unequivocally denied the charges. But when he seemingly pulled a Savage and decided to blame the charges on racism — he said, "If I were a white congressman with the same background, would this have happened? I think not" — he began to rapidly lose support in the district. Convicted the following August, he announced his resignation effective Oct. 1.

For the special election to replace Reynolds, Chicago's Democratic organization threw its support to state Sen. Emil Jones Jr. But Jesse Jackson Jr. handily won the primary, tantamount to election in the district. Said Jones bitterly, "It's like running against a Kennedy in Massachusetts."

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

R.I.P. J.R. From 1978 until 1991, one of the most watched series on television was "Dallas," a soap opera-esque tale of a Texas oil family. And the star of the show was actor Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing, the devilish head of the household. Hagman died on Friday (Nov. 23). But during its long run on TV, "Dallas" was part of the national dialogue, and when an unknown assailant had shot Ewing during one episode, the would-be assassin's identity became a national obsession. It also became part of the political conversation. J.R. Ewing for President buttons popped up in 1980, and another button (shown here) appeared at that year's Republican convention in Detroit.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's special guest was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who is leaving Congress at the end of the year.

Nov. 21 Junkie segment on TOTN

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me. (Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, last week's episode was taped on Tuesday and went up on Wednesday.)

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a TOTN T-shirt, but a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??

Last week's winner: Mike Douthit of Anchorage, Alaska.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

/ Ken Rudin collection
Ken Rudin collection

This day in campaign history: Despite the relentless controversy and outrage over his former relationship with Chandra Levy — a Washington intern who has been missing since May — Rep. Gary Condit, a Democrat from California's 18th District, files for re-election for another term. Levy's disappearance, and the exact nature of her past relationship with Condit, who is married, has had Washington buzzing for months (Nov. 26, 2001). Condit, seeking a seventh full term, will get walloped by state Rep. Dennis Cardoza in the March 2002 Democratic primary. Levy's remains won't be found until May of 2002; Ingmar Guandique, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, will be convicted of her murder.

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