PI Original Matthew Blake Thursday October 11th, 2012, 4:40pm

Jackson Jr.'s Absence Brings Uncertainty To Illinois' Second Congressional District

It is a mystery to 2nd district residents as to whether they will get an experienced and high-profile representative with the clout to bring money and jobs to the area, a representative weakened by both his medical condition and a still pending ethics investigation, or a special election for a new representative after the November general election.

While on a medical leave of absence, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Chicago) is up for re-election in Illinois’ 2nd congressional district, leaving voters guessing in an economically hurting district that spans Chicago's Southeast Side and includes southern suburbs, such as Calumet City and Peotone.

It is a mystery to 2nd district residents as to whether they will get an experienced and high-profile representative with the clout to bring money and jobs to the area, a representative weakened by both his medical condition and a still pending ethics investigation, or a special election for a new representative after the November general election.

Jackson has been on leave since June 10, receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, and there is no timetable for his return.

Jackson political consultant Kevin Lampe responded to questions of when – or if – the representative will return by saying, “We are waiting for the doctors to say that he can come back to work.” Asked if Jackson would appear before constituents prior to the November 6 election, Lampe similarly responded, “It is all up to what his doctors say.”

Jackson spent the summer at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, while his office trickled out information on his condition. First, it was generically announced as a medical leave of absence, and then that the congressman was dealing with a mood disorder. Later, his office said that Jackson was suffering from bipolar disorder.

On September 10, Jackson checked out of the Mayo Clinic and returned to his family in Washington, D.C. But he has remained off the job and outside of the public eye. Late last month, rumors began swirling about the future of the congressman's political career when his D.C. townhome was put up for sale, though it was rather quickly removed from the market. 

Nonetheless, Jackson should cruise to victory next month in his race against Brian Woodworth, a Republican from Bourbonnais, and Marcus Lewis, an independent from Chicago.

Lewis castigates Jackson for running away from voters, repeatedly alleging in an interview that the 17-year lawmaker is just looking to stay in the House for 20 years to collect his Congressional pension. Woodworth, who did not respond to a message for this article, has not gained national Republican money despite competing against an opponent on leave.

While Jackson is absent now, Lampe notes that “the Congressman won a decisive battle” in a competitive Democratic primary against Debbie Halvorson, a former U.S. Representative and Illinois senate leader.

Indeed, Jackson used the primary to argue he is an effective lawmaker despite disputed ties to imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. 

Jackson stressed in the primary that he is the only member of the Illinois Congressional delegation on the House Appropriations Committee, placing him in a unique position to get federal money. And Jackson centered attention on the local issue that has defined his congressional career – securing a third Chicago area airport in Peotone.

These attributes, plus the notariety given to the son of a legendary civil rights leader, will leave the district if Jackson does. “He brings a lot of recognition and resources,” says Michael Mezey, a political science professor at DePaul University. “He is in a position of influence.”

But that recognition and influence has perhaps not paid clear dividends. Halvorson argued in the primary campaign that Jackson has focused too much on an airport project that has been floated since the 1960s.

And even on the airport issue, Jackson finds himself at odds with the government of Will County, which has a competing vision for managing the project. As Progress Illinois has reported, the future of the third Chicago airport may now hinge more on what happens with county government and the administration of Gov. Pat Quinn than Jackson himself.

Meanwhile, the Congressional investigation that first made Jackson politically vulnerable continues.

In 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics determined there was "probable cause" to believe that Jackson played some sort of a role in or had knowledge of an aquaintance's ploy to raise campaign funds for Blagojevich in an effort to coerce the governor to appoint Jackson to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. The U.S. House Ethics Committee is considering these charges to determine whether Jackson is guilty of any wrongdoing and, if so, how he should be reprimanded for his actions.

“If he had been in Congress doing his job, that might neutralize to some extent the investigation,” says Jamie Dominguez, a political science professor at Northwestern University. “The fact that he is not might put him in a more vulnerable position.”

Jackson, though, may render the investigation moot if he resigns. If that were to happen, Quinn would schedule a special election. Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th), the wife and campaign manager of the Congressman, has said her husband will stay on the ballot for the November 6 election.

Elected officials have mostly avoided criticizing Jackson, out of respect for his medical condition. A few political opponents have taken issue, including Halvorson.

“I think it is a real shame that Jesse says he wants to serve, but he doesn’t want to do what it takes to earn people’s support,” Halvorson says. “He just wants the job. The 2nd district needs someone to represent them, to fight for them."

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