Chicagoans Narrow Field to Fill Jackson Jr. Congress Seat

Robin Kelly won yesterday’s Illinois Democratic primary for the vacated seat of former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. in a race that centered on gun control and the role of outside money in political campaigns.

The Democratic winner is expected to prevail in the April 9 general election in a Chicago-area district that voted 81 percent for President Barack Obama in November. Kelly, a former Illinois state legislator, was one of 16 Democratic candidates in the primary. The Republican primary, also held yesterday, was too close to call, the Associated Press reported.

Highlighting the importance of the gun issue in the race, Kelly said last night that voters had sent a message to the National Rifle Association, the lobbying group that opposes tighter firearms restrictions.

“We will fight to ban assault weapons, to close the gun-show loopholes, and to ban high-capacity magazine clips,” Kelly said during a news conference. “We will do whatever it takes to ban this epidemic of gun violence once and for all.”

The contest had drawn attention and money from outside Chicago, with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super-political action committee, Independence USA, targeting Democrat Debbie Halvorson, a leading contender who as a U.S. congresswoman had held the NRA’s top ranking. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.

Outside Money

Independence USA spent more than $2.2 million on ads attacking Halvorson and supporting Kelly, according to the committee’s filings. Halvorson had raised $98,000 as of Feb. 6, according to federal records.

“We all know how rough it was for me to have to run an election against somebody who spent $2.3 million against me,” Halvorson said last night in a concession speech. “But tonight is about rallying around Democrats.”

Another Democratic contender, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, also conceded last night, according to the AP.

Chicago has become a center for the gun debate because it had 506 homicides last year, the most in the city in four years. The violence drew the attention of Obama, who spoke on curbing gun violence this month at a school near the park where Hadiya Pendleton, 15, a Chicago student who attended Obama’s inauguration, was fatally shot.

The NRA is one of the strongest voices against gun-control laws in the U.S. The Fairfax, Virginia-based nonprofit group says it has more than 4 million individuals as members, and it reported 2011 revenue of $219 million on its tax returns.

No Representation

Voters in Jackson’s district, which includes Chicago’s South Side and southern suburbs, haven’t had representation since he went on medical leave from Congress in June. Jackson, 47, and his wife, former Alderman Sandi Jackson, pleaded guilty last week to fraud involving his campaign, among other charges.

The downfall of the couple, once viewed as a budding Chicago powerhouse, derailed the Jackson family’s role in politics. Jackson Jr., scion of the iconic civil-rights family led by the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., was often mentioned for higher office.

Jesse Jackson Jr.’s political fortunes started to shift shortly after Obama won the White House in 2008, when the congressman pressed to replace the president-elect in the U.S. Senate and was caught up in the scandal surrounding former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s attempts to sell the seat.

The vote to replace Jackson recalled the 1995 special election in which the younger Jackson filled a vacancy left by Mel Reynolds, who was convicted of bank fraud and sexual assault. Out of prison since President Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2001, Reynolds was one of the Democratic candidates on the ballot in yesterday’s contest.

November Resignation

The election likely cost the city $1.5 million, even after Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill in December that made the ballot coincide with local municipal voting on April 9, according to the Chicago Board of Elections.

Jackson resigned from Congress on Nov. 21, after being on leave since June. His office initially said he was suffering from exhaustion, although later it was revealed he had depression and bipolar disorder and had been hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

His absence has cut the Second District out of the federal legislative process, said Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based group that tracks corruption.

“Nobody has been representing them in the corridors of power in Washington, where dollars are parceled out,” Shaw said. “There’s no mechanism for getting representation when a congressman goes down like Jesse Jackson Jr.”

Heavy Snow

Election officials reported low voter turnout on a day with heavy snowfall and no other major contests. In the special election Jackson Jr. won in 1995 to replace Reynolds, only 18 percent of voters participated, according to the elections board. The congressman before Reynolds, Gus Savage, was found by a House Ethics Committee to have made improper sexual advances on a female Peace Corps volunteer.

Still, Jackson’s case stands out amid Chicago’s rich history of malfeasance. In his guilty plea on Feb. 20, he acknowledged misusing $750,000 of campaign contributions to buy 3,100 personal items, including a $43,000 Rolex watch, a hat that belonged to the late pop singer Michael Jackson and $15,000 in dry cleaning. Yesterday’s contest, which marked an opportunity for a clean slate for the district, wasn’t short of controversy.

Kelly came under scrutiny last week after the Chicago Tribune reported alleged ethics violations by her while she worked for the state treasurer. The office’s chief investigator said she improperly reported time off from her job while chief of staff in 2010, according to the Tribune.