Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. beset by difficulties, but Election Day isn't one

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois has been absent from Congress since June, citing his health. He's also under investigation by a House ethics panel and, reportedly, the FBI. But he looks poised to sail to reelection, polling shows.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
In this October 2011 photo, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., is seen during the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.

When residents of the Second Congressional District in Illinois vote Tuesday, polls show, they are likely to choose a candidate who may continue to be absent from his post due to poor health or because he may soon be embroiled in a federal trial for fraud. Or both.

Both scenarios appear possible for US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the incumbent Democrat who has held his House seat for 17 years and is seeking reelection amid speculation that he may not be in a position to serve.

The US Constitution lets Congress decide whether a representative who can no longer serve should stay or go. No members of Mr. Jackson’s party have called for his ouster from the ticket, and so far none has suggested that he vacate his seat if elected. Democrats are eager to keep the House seat in the party, and Jackson's name recognition has been a proven fundraiser, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

“We used to take the two state [political] parties seriously as some kind of construct [for enforcing certain conduct], but the fact of the matter is, they’re both loose organizations and don’t have the ability to discipline people like they way they used to,” says political scientist Larry Bennett of DePaul University in Chicago.

Jackson was once a rising star of his party, seen as a young, fresh face who was connected to the civil rights protest era through his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Clouds first appeared over the younger Jackson through his connection with former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year federal prison term for wrongdoing related to a pay-for-play scheme involving President Obama’s former US Senate seat. A House Ethics panel is investigating whether Jackson tried to bribe Mr. Blagojevich to get appointed to the seat, or at least tried to engage in the process through an emissary. Jackson denies the allegations.

News reports also say Jackson is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for improperly using campaign funds to decorate his Washington home. According to the Chicago Tribune, a Washington area furniture store operator has acknowledged cooperation with federal authorities, and authorities say an indictment is imminent.

Jackson is also reported to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental-health problem, and he has not reported to work since early June. He currently resides at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and his family has put its $2.5 million townhouse in Washington on the market. In late October, Jackson sent an 85-second robocall to constituents to ask for their patience, telling them that “a return to work on your behalf” is “against medical advice.”

Jackson's reelection seems all but assured. According to an Oct. 21 poll by We Ask America, a polling operation in Springfield, Ill., 58 percent of likely voters in his district, which represents parts of Chicago and south suburban Cook and Will Counties, say they plan to vote for Jackson. That's twice as many who say they will vote for his closest competitor, Republican Brian Woodworth, who received 27 percent. (The poll involved 819 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.)

So far, the Democratic Party of Illinois has remained quiet about Jackson’s situation and will not discuss any next steps should he remain absent from his office into 2013 or become embroiled in a trial. If Jackson were to step down, a special election would be required to determine his replacement.

“Nobody is talking about that. He’s the nominee of the party. We’re hopeful he gets the proper and complete health care he needs to get back to work as quickly as possible,” says Steve Brown, the party spokesman in Illinois.

Critics say Jackson's continued absence from Congress won't help the southern Chicago area, which is reeling from economic turmoil such as high foreclosure rates and unemployment.

The Democratic Party continues to support Jackson through this election in the expectation that, if he were eventually to step down, it could cherry-pick a successor to run for his seat. “What we see here in Will County is the same type of politics we see in Chicago with the local Democrats. They’re more focused on protecting a seat than they are in doing what is best for the county,” says Cory Singer, a Republican who is running for executive of Will County.

Professor Bennett of DePaul says Jackson does not have incentive to return to work because his staff members can perform essential day-to-day tasks.

“They can hum along almost with perpetuity if it comes down to it,” he says. “But after the election, at some point, if his situation isn’t clarified or if he’s not able to come back, there will be pressure on him to step aside. I just don’t think the Democrats in Illinois are at that point yet.”

Jackson isn't either – and he probably won't be, absent deteriorating health or a strong criminal case against him.

“There’s no reason for him to give it up. He can hide the entire time. What’s going to stop him from collecting his paycheck?” asks Debbie Halvorson, a former US Rep. of the 11th Congressional District in Illinois, who lost to Jackson in the March Democratic primary. When the allegations against Jackson surfaced in the Blagojevich case, Ms. Halvorson was the first to ask that Jackson step down to prevent the party from further disgrace related to the Blagojevich saga.

“I wish him the best, but he should be thinking about the people by stepping aside. It should not be about him,” she says. “The district should be about the people.” 

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