BY DAN MIHALOPOULOS
June 29, 2012 8:46PM
Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Ald. Sandi Jackson at his election night party on March, 20, 2012. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: June 30, 2012 12:51AM
The story of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s severely diminished prospects for becoming a real force in Chicago politics essentially begins and ends at 312, a restaurant across the street from City Hall.
That’s where the Democratic congressman and a top aide sat at a sidewalk table on a sunny day in August 2005. They barely touched their lunches, working their cellphones for the latest news on then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s announcement that federal agents had questioned him.
Jackson ultimately balked at challenging Daley, but a little more than three years later, he was at 312 again.
This time, the topic of conversation was his desire to succeed Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. Jackson told friend and contributor Raghuveer Nayak to approach then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich with a lucrative fund-raising offer that could turn his Senate dream into reality — or so Nayak would tell the feds.
Jackson denies that story and has never been charged with wrongdoing. Still, his extended brush with scandal — political and personal — perhaps has permanently thwarted the once-limitless ambitions of the heir apparent to Chicago’s most prominent black political dynasty.
After years of eagerly promoting himself as a reformer who would usher in a new force in independent city politics, he has increasingly cloistered himself in recent years.
His retreat became almost total in the past week, when his office announced he was taking time off to receive medical treatment for “exhaustion,” and a friend said his marriage was in trouble. The move came just a few days after Nayak’s arrest on fraud charges unrelated to the Blagojevich scandal.
From being one of the most accessible and talkative elected officials in a city of backroom wheelers and dealers, Jackson has become a virtual recluse, his whereabouts and precise physical or psychological woes undisclosed to the public.
The latest negative publicity revived questions about his political future. Many political operatives believe Jackson, 47, could continue to enjoy a firm hold on his congressional seat representing much of the South Side and south suburbs.
But some allies said he now is unlikely to ever fulfill the potential he first showed when he confidently delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, when his father ran for the party’s presidential nomination.
“I think his career is probably capped at being a congressman,” said Delmarie Cobb, a Democratic political consultant who worked on Jackson’s first run for Congress in 1995. “He can stay where he is and be valuable, but as far as higher office, all these things would come back to haunt him.”
Don Rose, who managed Harold Washington’s election as Chicago’s first black mayor, said he and the congressman’s father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had urged the younger Jackson to take on Daley in 2007.
Saw ‘big potential’
“I saw him as a guy with big potential, who had the same qualities Barack had to reach out beyond the African-American community,” Rose said. “Right now, it’s game off.”
Rose and Jackson spokesman Frank Watkins said hopes for a career revival rest on the findings of investigators with the U.S. House Committee on Ethics, who are conducting an ongoing probe into the Blagojevich matter. The Office of Congressional Ethics last year said there was probable cause to believe Jackson either directed Nayak to fund-raise for Blagojevich in exchange for the Senate appointment or “had knowledge that Nayak would likely make such an offer once Representative Jackson authorized him” to take his case to the governor.
Asked about the congressman’s prospects, Watkins replied Friday, “You can’t really project that.”
“If you have a white suit and you have somebody throw ink all over it, you can take it to the cleaners but the stains might still be there,” Watkins said. “Some people will never believe he didn’t do what the press has steadfastly reported as fact.”
In a statement titled “My Story” and posted on Jackson’s website, he alleges that the local media have denied him the presumption of innocence. And Watkins noted that the New York Times — “but not his hometown papers” — had published a story based on a Washington news conference earlier this month, when Jackson announced a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. Despite Jackson’s absence from work, Watkins said, a relatively small but growing number of House colleagues have signaled their support for that effort as well as another Jackson proposal, which promises greater protection for voting rights.
Jackson’s sudden disappearance has marred an almost-perfect attendance record at important House votes. On Thursday, Jackson was not present for the vote to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. The only other “key vote” that Jackson had missed since at least 2005 was the March 29 vote on the House Republicans’ budget plan, according to the Washington Post. Jackson hasn’t voted since June 8.
David Heller, who was Jackson’s media consultant for his March primary win, said the congressman’s constituents back him and were poised to benefit from his increased power in Washington, thanks to his seniority on the House Appropriations Committee.
“If [the Democrats] take the House, this man is a cardinal,” Heller said. “He’s in a much more influential place than four years ago.”
In Chicago, however, Jackson has come far short of establishing himself as the leader of a new citywide political force, as he promised frequently before becoming ensnared in the Blagojevich scandal.
Ahead of the 2007 mayoral election, Jackson launched a citywide “listening tour” and discussed leading a slate of reform candidates for mayor as well as city clerk, treasurer and 15 City Council seats across Chicago. He proudly showed off a high-tech campaign “war room” that he set up in a building near his home. And he held a news conference at his bungalow in the South Shore neighborhood to declare himself almost certain of running for mayor against Daley.
In the end, all he had to show for those efforts was the election of his wife, Sandi Jackson, as 7th Ward alderman.
Cobb said she believed the congressman made a crucial mistake in deciding not to run against Daley. Even defeat could have positioned him to eventually succeed Daley, she said.
“He absolutely missed his opportunity,” Cobb said. “That’s the thing in politics. You can’t jump at every opportunity, but sometimes you have only one chance, and once you miss that opportunity, nothing goes right for you after that. 2007 was his time.”
His next target was the Senate seat vacated when Obama became president. Although his relationship with Blagojevich was poor, Jackson unleashed a barrage of press releases, e-mails, poll data and other public pronouncements expressing his Senate hopes.
The congressman had his first private meeting with the governor in years at Blagojevich’s Thompson Center office on Dec. 8, 2008. Leaving the late-afternoon meeting, Jackson Jr. said he had merely sought to impress Blagojevich with a matter-of-fact presentation of his accomplishments. Blagojevich was arrested the next morning.
Jackson’s father has not commented publicly since the congressman’s leave of absence was revealed. In an interview in 2010, on the eve of the first of what would be two Blagojevich trials, Jackson Sr. predicted his son would “come out just fine” after the whole truth became known publicly.
“I don’t know anyone who has a clean uniform who has done anything more than sat on the bench,” the elder Jackson said. “You fight through those challenges, and he is doing it with great poise.”