PI Original Matthew Blake Friday December 14th, 2012, 6:36pm

Making Sense Of 2nd Congressional District Special Election A Daunting Task For Voters

The special election to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress is already chaotic, with seven declared Democratic candidates, an erstwhile favorite bringing a gun into an airport and talk that Jackson’s brother will throw his hat in the ring. Progress Illinois takes a look at the race thus far.

The special election to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress is already chaotic, with seven declared Democratic candidates, an erstwhile favorite bringing a gun into an airport and talk that Jackson’s brother will throw his hat in the ring.

With the Democratic primary on February 26 and the general election on April 9, the losers in this process would appear to be 2nd congressional district voters. The district includes the Southeast Side of Chicago and adjacent suburbs and was redrawn last year so as to stretch into parts of Will and Kankakee counties. It is predominantly Democratic and the Democratic nominee should cruise to victory in the general election.

Many 2nd district residents face persistent economic hardships and all of them have been without representation since June when Jackson took a medical leave of absence.  Jackson resigned on November 21 citing his treatment for bipolar disorder— and acknowledging that he is subject to two separate federal investigations.

“The far South Side is an underserved and socially excluded community,” says Gwendolyn Wright, executive director of the Developing Communities Project an organization in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago. “We need a lot.”

Wright wants each candidate to address the area’s high unemployment and transportation shortcomings, including the long anticipated extension of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line and construction of an airport in Peotone. During his seventeen years in Congress, Jackson was almost singularly focused on the third Chicago area airport.

But the biggest aviation issue in the race so far is State Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago), a declared candidate, trying to board a flight at O’Hare International Airport on December 5 with a handgun in his bag. Trotter claimed he forgot about the gun. The lawmaker said he had the weapon for his apparent position moonlighting as a security guard, a job that Trotter has never previously disclosed.  

Trotter faces a felony charge, but continues his bid for a 2nd district seat where the last three members of Congress left in scandal. That includes Jackson’s predecessor Mel Reynolds, who resigned in 1995 and spent time in prison for both statutory rape and an unrelated securities fraud conviction. Reynolds is one of the seven declared candidates, though he cannot campaign too close to schools and parks due to the felony sex conviction.

Reynolds does not have a chance, but Trotter still might. Cook County Democratic Party ward and township committeemen meet on Saturday to potentially slate a candidate, based on a weighted voting system. Trotter was viewed as the favorite to be slated prior to the gun charge and he still may pick up support from party leaders. “Trotter will be formidable,” says veteran Chicago political strategist Don Rose.

According to Rose, the other “front line” contenders are Robin Kelly, the chief administrative officer for Cook County and Debbie Halvorson, a former member of Congress who Jackson soundly defeated in the Democratic primary this March.

Kelly is a former Democratic nominee for state treasurer and a former member of the Illinois House. “Voters across the second district are struggling with the same issues year after year,” Kelly wrote in a e-mail, noting a lack of good paying jobs, poor transportation and infrastructure, lackluster schools, and that “in some areas of the district residents live in fear of crime and violence.”

Kelly writes that Jackson “had the right priorities and the right voting record for our community”, including the third Peotone airport. Kelly would work with Will County, the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration to complete the project, she writes.

Halvorson is more critical of Jackson’s legacy. She backs the Peotone airport, but blasts Jackson for wanting to set up his own commission to run the airport instead of letting Will County officials take control.

Halvorson is uniquely qualified to represent the 2nd district, she says, due to her two years in Congress between 2009 and 2011, representing Illinois’ 11th district. She says that, unlike Jackson, she can “walk and chew gum at the same time”, pushing for the airport, but also other projects that require federal cash such as extending the Red Line from 95th St. to 130th St.

It is unclear whether Halvorson’s failed run against Jackson makes her damaged goods or helps raise her profile in a short campaign season. “Debbie Halvorson has the most name recognition of the candidates,” says Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Halvorson’s former chief of staff in Springfield, Toi Hutchinson of Olympia Fields, is also running. While elected to the state senate just once, Hutchinson has pushed the Peotone airport forward in Jackson’s leave of absence. “She definitely has a history with the project and working with Will County officials,” says Alicia Hanlon, senior transportation planner for Will County Executive Larry Walsh.

State Sen.-elect Napoleon Harris (D-Flossmoor) and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) round out the field. Harris’s election to the state senate was his first run for public office, but he enjoys money and name recognition as a former professional football player. An alderman since 1999, Beale is a political protégé of Jackson’s, meaning that he might get the support of the ex-lawmaker’s political organization.

However, Jackson’s brother, Jonathan Jackson, may yet enter the field. Like Jesse Jackson, Jr., Jonathan Jackson’s background is in large part working for his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jonathan Jackson is the current spokesman for his father’s Rainbow Push Coalition, and also is a business partner at a Chicago beer distributorship.

Rose says that it is eminently that possible Jonathan Jackson could win the seat even though his brother ignominiously resigned. “Jesse Sr. has prestige and there is still a strong Jackson organization,” the political strategist says.

One Jackson who will not run is Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th), the wife of Jesse Jackson, Jr. Ald. Jackson said this week that she will stay in the Chicago City Council. According to a report today in the Chicago Sun-Times, Sandi Jackson altered several of her campaign fund records, including $13,000 in undisclosed transfers from Jackson Jr.'s congressional account to her ward's reorganization coffers. The amendments went all the way back to records pertaining to 2009 and were made after Jackson Jr. resigned.

Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

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