CHICAGO — Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. faces serious competition for the first time since his House career began, damaged by the last three years of allegations of corruption and embarrassing personal disclosures and made even more vulnerable by Illinois's new congressional district map.
Jackson, 46, came to Congress 16 years ago already with designs on higher office and sought to transcend the more polarizing figure cut by his father, the famous civil rights leader. But with a House Ethics Committee inquiry hanging over him, Jackson Jr. is now being challenged by former congresswoman and state senate leader Debbie Halvorson, a fellow Democrat who has tried to draw attention to his "ethical distractions."
The last three years have been a lost period for Jackson Jr., normally a loquacious presence in Washington and his home city of Chicago. His troubles have been tied to the investigation of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Justice Department had previously asked the House Ethics Committee to defer its investigation, but the committee will now decide by Dec. 2 what it plans to do with the allegation that Jackson Jr. attempted to buy the Senate seat vacated when President Barack Obama was elected.
The committee could take a number of courses, from closing the investigation or calling for a deeper inquiry into whether Jackson Jr. or an emissary offered to raise money for Blagojevich in exchange for a Senate appointment as well as if he improperly used his official staff to campaign for the seat.
Jackson Jr. declined to be interviewed for this story. His chief of staff, Rick Bryant, said the committee's looming decision is a positive thing.
"Congressman Jackson believes in the process, he's cooperated fully in the investigation, and he is confident he will be vindicated," Bryant said.
Whatever course the committee takes, it will mark a turning point for Jackson Jr., who was first elected at age 30, twice considered runs for mayor of Chicago and openly pined for a U.S. Senate appointment as Obama was elected in 2008.
"He's essentially been in hiding ... the whole momentum of his role in government and politics has gone away," said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who monitors Chicago politics closely as head of the political science department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "People aren't generally seeking his endorsement. There are some races where it might be important, but people are nervous about it, whereas before they'd be delighted."
Halvorson's decision to run against him is another sign that Jackson Jr. is no longer feared. A one-term member of Congress who lost her seat in 2010, she represented the new territory in Jackson Jr.'s district around Kankakee, south of Chicago, about 25 percent of the voting base. She is expected to run a vigorous campaign, though the district is still packed with voters loyal to Jackson Jr.
"We need a congressman who doesn't have ethical distractions," Halvorson said when she announced her campaign.
Given a viable alternative, some say they're not sure they'll vote for Jackson again.
"No matter what your name is or what family you come from in America, the democratic process is supposed to work and you should not be let off the hook for any reason," said Brian Mullins, a real estate developer who voted for Jackson in 2010. He spoke down the street from storefront offices for Jackson and his wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, which are emblazoned with their pictures.
Aliscia Roberts, a restaurant server, said Halvorson will have an opportunity to earn her vote.
"It's who's going to do the best job," she said. "I want to know who's going to be best for my community here."
Some say they are willing to stick with Jackson Jr. Elton Brandon, a retired security guard, said he wasn't troubled by the ethics investigation.
"Politicians are always being accused of something," he said.
Jackson Jr. won his seat in a special election after his predecessor, Mel Reynolds, was forced to resign and sentenced to prison for having sex with an under-aged girl.
Jackson Jr. built his own political brand: It mixed outspokenness for liberal causes -- he was happy to ruffle feathers in his own party and also once got into a heated, near physical confrontation Republican Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska on the House floor -- with strong constituent work in his district.
"He was a go-to guy if you wanted African American support and you weren't getting it from the machine," said Simpson. "He was the most likely to be able to catapult you and get some resources."
As the 2008 presidential race geared up, Jackson Jr. was an early supporter of Obama's presidential campaign, signing up as a national co-chairman. He showcased his independence, at one point publicly upbraiding his own father when Jackson Sr. made off-color remarks about Obama.
But virtually from the moment Obama was elected, Jackson Jr. has shrunk from the public eye.
His name quickly surfaced in the investigation of Blagojevich, convicted last June of a wide range of corruption charges including trying to sell the vacant Senate seat. According to the criminal complaint, Jackson Jr. supporters were willing to raise $1.5 million for Blagojevich if he chose the congressman.
Throughout, Jackson Jr. has denied any wrongdoing. But over the course of the investigation he acknowledged a relationship with a nightclub hostess he called a "social acquaintance." Jackson Jr. and Sandi Jackson have called the relationship a "private matter" and say they've dealt it with through counseling.
Aides and supporters say the last three years have weighed on Jackson Jr. and that it eats at him that the ethics investigation has put him in a self-enforced exile. Bryant, his chief of staff, said that congressman is hopeful that the decision from the ethics committee is an opportunity to put the last three years behind him.
He also framed Jackson Jr.'s new district as a positive.
"The congressman is excited about representing new constituents and addressing new challenges," Bryant said. "He's already found that there are many more similarities than differences between the people of Kankakee and the people in the south suburbs."
Jackson reported from Washington.