The resignation of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) from Congress last week created an uncertain political future for the residents of Illinois’ second congressional district and for the once-rising star, political analysts and other observers say.
Since gliding into Congress in a 1995 landslide victory in a special election, Jackson has handily-won reelection. Citing his family legacy—his father is a civil rights figurehead—and his attention to local concerns, voters have overwhelmingly supported the congressman.
Even in absentia—Jackson was missing in action for most of this year as he sought medical treatment for bipolar disorder, depression and gastrointestinal issues—and with an ethics probe and campaign finance investigation hanging over his head, the congressman prevailed over his challengers in this year’s election.
His resignation, however, creates a rare opportunity for someone else to represent the district.
“I see a situation where you’ll have an absolute free-for-all,” said Jason Johnson, a political analyst out of Hiram College in Ohio.
Ken Menzel, deputy general counsel of the Illinois Board of Elections, said the governor has to issue a writ of elections to authorize the special election within five days of the resignation, and the election must take place within 115 days. If the state can’t use already scheduled dates for local elections, a standalone, special election could cost about $5 million.
At least 12 names—including Jackson’s wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson; Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) and Illinois State Sens. Donne Trotter and Toi Hutchinson—have been thrown into the ring.
The list also includes some Republicans. And while it is unlikely that a Republican would win in the heavily-Democratic constituency, redistricting has increased those odds. The district now comprises South Side Chicago neighborhoods, several southern suburbs and some rural areas.
“If you look at that District right now it has changed a lot. It has a lot more Whites and Republicans now,” Johnson, the political science professor said.
The looming change has several implications in both Capitol Hill and Illinois.
“It opens the door for someone other than an African American to represent the district, which is a concern because we in the Congressional Black Caucus are always trying to expand our numbers not shrink them,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md).
And second district constituents also stand to lose from Jackson’s resignation.
“Whoever gets in would not be as influential as him because they’re new, they will be at the bottom of the totem pole,” Johnson said. “But how much worst can you be than with a politician who spent months in an emotional binge and not doing anything?”
Still, over his years in Congress, the 47-year-old Jackson earned a reputation in his district as a competent representative—he brought home close to a billion dollars over the years—who was responsive to various local needs.
“He earned a good name for being universal in his representation,” Cummings said, adding that Jackson was particularly attuned to the needs of his most vulnerable constituents.
“It’s going to be hard to find someone who is as sensitive to the needs of the poor as Jesse was. One of his major efforts was to move people from poverty to the middle class,” Cummings said.
The longtime politician, who entered Congress within a year of Jackson under similar circumstances—a special election—said his friend’s resignation is also a blow to Black political aspiration and power.
“For him not to be part of this Congress is something I don’t like to think about. It’s almost like a mourning because I know the hard work it takes to get to this level, particularly when you’re African American,” Cummings said.
“You wonder what more could he have accomplished as a congressman or even as a senator, since many saw him as a good candidate to assume the seat vacated by Barack Obama,” said the Maryland Democrat of Jackson’s star power. “There were some who even saw him as running for president someday.”
Cummings added that despite Jackson’s present troubles, however, he still believes he can fulfill his potential.
“Some people are writing his obituary, but I don’t believe that God is finished with him. I refuse to believe it….Once he gets through this crisis he will land on his feet.”