Run, Jesse Jr., Run: Famous Son Stumps for Racial Equity
Younger Jackson woos disillusioned voters in tight race for Congress
CHICAGO — AS a child growing up on the picket lines of the 1960s and '70s civil rights movement, Jesse Jackson Jr. recalls the odd feeling he often had walking into a room and having strangers call him by name.
By the time he finished high school, Jackson - the eldest son of the famous minister - began to appreciate, in his words, that "Dad wasn't someone I should just be casually comfortable with, but one I should also respect as a champion for social justice."
Today, buoyed by his father's fame and inspiration, the stocky former football star and law-school graduate hopes to advance the family mission of racial equality his own way: by running for Congress.
Glancing through a gray mist one recent morning, Jackson - known as "Junior" to friends - points to a highway that snakes along Lake Michigan and into some of Chicago's bleakest South Side neighborhoods.
"See that road out there?" he says. "We've had head-on collisions here for years." Only after sharp protest did the city install a median strip, Jackson says.
He turns away from the droning cars. "People who support me are tired of this. They are tired of deals where people get dealt out and politicians get dealt in. They want a change," he says.
Jackson's campaign, his first for elected office, amounts to a carefully calculated attack on the widespread disillusionment felt by millions of blacks in Chicago and around the nation.
Whether the 30-year-old maverick can defeat several older and more established politicians depends largely on his ability to draw out younger blacks who usually don't vote.
"We have a whole generation of people who have never participated in the political process," says Jackson, who claims to have registered 5,000 new voters in an exhaustive drive staged at high schools, churches, and barber shops. "The people who will vote for me wouldn't otherwise vote at all."
Jackson could hardly campaign on more fertile ground. Cynicism among the voting-age population runs deep in this primarily black, Democratic congressional district on Chicago's South Side. The last representative, Mel Reynolds, resigned in August after he was convicted for criminal sexual misconduct. He is now serving a five-year jail sentence.
So far, Jackson's upstart tactics seem to be working. On the eve of a crucial primary tomorrow, he is holding a slight edge in polls over his chief rivals, Illinois state Sen. Emil Jones and Alice Palmer. A primary win in the overwhelmingly Democratic district virtually ensures a victory in the Dec. 12 general election. Still, more than a third of voters remain undecided, and some pollsters predict a turnout as low as 15 percent.
A Jackson victory would be a milestone for his family. Despite his political influence, presidential campaigning, and diplomatic initiatives, the elder Jackson has never had a vote in Congress.
Indeed, although rooted in a shared vision, Jackson's campaign is bringing out strong stylistic differences between father and son. Acquaintances describe Jesse Jr. - a magna cum laude graduate of North Carolina A & T University in Greensboro who went on to obtain masters degrees in divinity and law - as more soft-spoken and methodical than his father.
"Junior is very logical; he runs through scenario 'A,' 'B,' 'C.' You can attribute that to a law degree," says Hermene Hartman, a family friend and the publisher of N'DIGO, Chicago's largest black-owned newspaper. "Jesse Sr. is more visionary, he is more theologically based."
The younger Jackson doesn't dispute the observation. As national field director for the Rainbow Coalition since 1993, his focus on building a computer database for activism, setting up an Internet site, and writing a 200-page organizational manual has won him a reputation as a technocrat.
Jackson's rivals say he is too young and inexperienced for Congress. They charge that he owes his posts at the Rainbow Coalition and as secretary of the Democratic National Committee's black caucus to his father's influence.
Senator Jones, the Democratic minority leader of the Illinois legislature, told reporters that Jackson wouldn't even be "a blip on the screen" without his family fame. "I'm running against his father," Jones said.
"He clearly has a wonderful name," agrees Kitty Kurth, a political consultant for Senator Palmer. "He's a very smart young man, but he has not had a very long history with people here," she adds. Raised in Chicago, Jackson established residency in the district only this year.
While acknowledging that he consults closely with his father, Jackson claims responsibility for his success in the race so far.
"We share a lot. I bounce a lot of ideas off him, and he bounces a lot off me," he says. "But when I've been debating in this campaign my father hasn't been there and I've been winning by myself."