By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Democratic ward bosses from Chicago neighborhoods and suburban townships are expected to endorse a candidate on Saturday who will have a leg up in a potentially crowded field to replace former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr.
Jackson resigned in November after 17 years in Congress amid a federal ethics probe and concerns over his health, and nearly a dozen candidates are considering taking a shot at filling the rare U.S. House vacancy from Illinois.
The Democrat who wins the backing of the so-called "slating committee" will have an edge over the other 2nd Congressional District candidates - access to the party's precinct workers, experts said.
"With all the candidates, being endorsed by the party might even make the endorsed candidate the front-runner," said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who heads the political science department at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
"But it doesn't guarantee they will win the primary," Simpson said.
The district has 428,000 registered voters in Cook, Kankakee and Will counties. Whoever wins the Feb. 26 Democratic primary is almost certain to win the April 9 special general election in the solidly Democratic district.
With the filing deadline in January, it is unclear precisely how many Democrats will run in the primary.
Nearly a dozen people have at least expressed interest in the seat, including former U.S. Representative Debbie Halvorson, who unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in the party primary this year. She said she was not seeking the party's endorsement.
"Congressional seats in the Chicago area don't come open that often," said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
"People get in and they stay in. So when one comes up, there are a lot of people who want to get in there," Mooney said.
The last Chicago-area congressional vacancy was in 2009, when Rahm Emanuel left the House to become President Barack Obama's chief of staff.
The committee chaired by Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli would want a primary winner who is "not an extremist or a weak candidate or someone who doesn't represent the district ideologically or demographically," Mooney said.
But critics of the slating process said it tends to anoint candidates based on their political clout more than their merit.
Simpson called the field of candidates interested in replacing Jackson, the son of civil rights leader and former presidential candidate the Reverend Jesse Jackson, "a pretty reasonable crop in terms of position and background."
Going into Saturday's meeting, veteran political observers said no candidate appeared to have locked up the endorsement.
The field includes Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, who sits on the slating committee, and, Simpson said, Jackson's younger brother, Jonathan L. Jackson, who is a partner in a Chicago beer distributing business.
"It didn't look like any of the Jacksons would get in," Simpson said. "But Jonathan's been taking polls to see if he can win."
Jesse Jackson Jr.'s wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, has said she would not seek to succeed him.
The field also includes one candidate with a troubled past, former Congressman Mel Reynolds, and another with an uncertain future, state Senator Donne Trotter.
Reynolds, who was forced to resign in 1995 after he was convicted of sexual assault and other charges, is running under the slogan, "Redemption."
Trotter was arrested earlier in December at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago after he tried to bring a handgun and ammunition onto an airplane - a felony. (Editing by David Bailey, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)