CHICAGO — After months of drama surrounding Jesse Jackson Jr.'s seat in Congress, the race to replace the congressman with the prominent name has pivoted to a different high-profile topic: guns.
Only a short time ago, most of the attention in Illinois' 2nd District was fixed on Jackson himself, specifically his mysterious leave of absence and a federal investigation, reportedly into misuse of campaign funds. But December's school shooting in Connecticut brought renewed attention to Chicago's own gun violence and refocused one of the nation's first major elections since the Newtown massacre.
With less than two weeks before the special primary, "A" grades from the National Rifle Association are being hurled about like the ugliest of insults. A super PAC backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent $1.27 million on ads warning voters to "watch out" for a leading candidate who opposes an assault weapons ban. And a state senator once considered a front-runner dropped out after being arrested for having a handgun in his bag at O'Hare International Airport.
In a contest involving more than a dozen candidates – all with similar backgrounds and none more than marginally known – guns could be the deciding issue. The intense focus on gun policy also raises the question of whether this election will offer a sign of what's to come in post-Newtown politics.
The campaign is unfolding in a district that includes a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas. Nearly half of district voters live on the South Side of Chicago, where some of the nation's worst gun violence has been heavily concentrated.
Among the victims in that area was 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, who police say was shot and killed as she talked with friends in a park not far from President Barack Obama's Chicago home. First lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral Saturday.
"The Newtown tragedy touched so many hearts, it raised the prominence of the issue, even in a city that's seen rampant gun violence. ... And I think Hadiya helped people to see our pain," said the Rev. Scott Onque of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. "Those are tragedies that let you know that something has to happen. It makes you think we have to start talking about it a little more."
Jackson resigned his seat in November, shortly after winning his ninth term despite a months-long leave of absence. In his resignation letter, he cited his ongoing treatment for bipolar disorder and acknowledged he is under federal investigation.
Jackson's departure after 17 years in office left the field wide open. Nearly two dozen people – most Democrats – quickly jumped in. Party officials held a slating session to try to unite behind one candidate for the Feb. 26 primary, but no one came away with enough votes to be the official party favorite.
Though four or five candidates moved to the front of the pack, their positions on most issues mirrored one another, making it difficult for candidates to distinguish themselves.
Then Newtown happened. Within weeks, Chicago closed the year with 506 homicides, and Obama proposed a series of initiatives aimed at stemming gun violence.
A handful of candidates saw an opportunity to draw a distinction.
"As far as genuine issues (where candidates differ) there are few," said Don Rose, a longtime analyst of Chicago politics. "I don't think any of them when they first filed for office realized this gun issue was going to take such prominence. This was kind of thrust upon them."
State Sen. Donne Trotter was among the favorites before his December arrest at O'Hare. Trotter said he had been working the night before as a security guard and had forgotten the gun was in his bag. But he dropped out a month later, saying he didn't want the charges to become a distraction in the race.
Former state Rep. Robin Kelly and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale began blasting state Sen. Toi Hutchinson and former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson for once receiving "A" ratings from the NRA.
Hutchinson has said the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School caused her to re-evaluate her positions and that she now supports Obama's proposals, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Her campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Beale accused Hutchinson, who is from suburban Cook County, of "jumping on the bandwagon." Kelly, who also is from the Chicago suburbs, called it "backtracking."
"What about what's been happening in Chicago the past five years? Or the other Sandy Hooks across the United States?" Kelly said. "The only thing that's changed is she's running for office."
Halvorson, who lost to Jackson in the 2012 primary, is standing by her positions, despite being the target of ads from Bloomberg's Independence USA super PAC. She supports background checks for gun purchases and registration of all firearms but opposes an assault weapons ban, saying law-abiding gun owners have Second Amendment rights and a ban in Cook County hasn't prevented gun violence.
It's a stance that could help Halvorson among voters in the far south end of the district, where she lives. That area is more rural and home to a greater number of white voters, as well as Republicans and others who support gun rights.
Halvorson is white, while Kelly, Hutchinson and Beale – like more than half of the district – are black. If Halvorson wins enough of the vote in the south end of the district and the other three candidates split the vote in Chicago and its south suburbs, it could be enough to give Halvorson the win.
Kelly has been most aggressive on the gun issue, earning her endorsements from U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush and Danny Davis, two Chicago Democrats from neighboring districts. On Tuesday, she was to be Rush's guest for the State of the Union address.
Kelly launched a TV ad last week touting her anti-gun record, which includes working with Obama on legislation in the Illinois General Assembly a decade ago.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face the Republican primary winner in the April 9 special general election.
If Kelly prevails, Rose said, "I think it will be kind of a signal of what's ahead in 2014."
Related on HuffPost:
IN: Robin Kelly
In this photo taken Aug. 18, 2010, Robin Kelly, former Illinois state representative and current Cook County Chief Administrative officer, is seen during Democrats Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. On Dec. 2, <a href="http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/16767105-418/robin-kelly-joins-quest-for-jacksons-seat-quinn-sets-april-9-vote-date.html" target="_hplink">Kelly announced her run for Jackson's seat</a> from a restaurant in suburban Matteson, Ill.
OUT: Toi Hutchinson
In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo Illinois Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, speaks on the Senate floor in Springfield. <a href="http://www.nbcchicago.com/blogs/ward-room/Sen-Toi-Hutchinson-Wants-Jacksons-Seat-180513971.html"> Hutchinson dropped out of the race in February 2013.
OUT: Napoleon Harris
The State Senator-elected and former NFL player -- who also owns two pizza chains -- was formerly <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/22/jesse-jackson-jr-resigned_n_2175593.html">among the special election candidates</a>. He <a href="http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/16642530-418/ex-nu-star-in-the-game.html">formally announced his run</a> on Nov. 27. Harris <a href="http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/illinois/chicago/harris-drops-out-of-nd-congressional-district-race/article_a8c5fab0-793a-5ffe-873c-52cdca6a0eda.html" target="_hplink">announced he was dropping out of the race</a> in late January. <em>Pictured:</em> Harris poses for his 2008 NFL headshot at photo day in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Getty Images)
IN: Lenny McAllister
Conservative pundit Lenny McAllister told DNAinfo.com Chicago that <a href="http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20121204/chicago/lenny-mcallister-enters-race-replace-jackson-as-only-republican">he is running for Jackson's congressional seat</a>. As of Dec. 5, he will be running unopposed in the Republican primary.
IN: Debbie Halvorson
Debbie Halvorson speaks to supporter as she gives her concession speech March 20 in Homewood, Ill. Halvorson, a former congresswoman who unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in the democratic primary, confirmed on Nov. 25 that <a href="http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/16626643-418/former-rep-debbie-halvorson-running-to-replace-jesse-jackson-jr.html">she will give the seat another go</a>.
IN: Mel Reynolds
FILE - In this Jan. 9, 1995 file photo, U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds responds to question in Chicago. Reynolds has scheduled a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, in Chicago to announce that he is running to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress. The Harvard-educated Democrat later also went to prison after being convicted of fraud for concealing debts to obtain bank loans and diverting money intended for voter registration drives into his election campaign. Jackson was first elected to Congress in 1995 in a special election to replace Reynolds. Reynolds said on Nov. 28 <a href="http://www.nbcchicago.com/blogs/ward-room/Mel-Reynolds-Jumping-Into-2nd-District-Race-181180581.html">his new campaign is "far from a joke</a>." (AP Photo/Fred Jewell, File)
IN: Anthony Beale
Chicago <a href="http://www.suntimes.com/news/elections/16701390-505/ald-anthony-beale-joins-race-for-2nd-congressional-district.html#" target="_hplink">Alderman Anthony Beale jumped into the race on Nov. 29</a> to replace his former political mentor, Jesse Jackson Jr. "I'm the only candidate in this race [who] has created thousands of jobs. ... One project alone has created 3,000 to 4,000 jobs. That's the kind of leadership we need," he said in the Sun-Times.
OUT: Anne Marie Miles
Attorney and community activist Anee Marie Miles announced in a press release on Dec. 3 she would consider running for the 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr. However, Miles had not filed by the Feb. 7 deadline. Miles ran unsuccessful bids against fifth ward Alderman Leslie Hairston,<a href="http://www.nbcchicago.com/blogs/ward-room/All-The-Hot-Committeemans-Races-139710383.html" target="_hplink"> first in 2011 to unseat the alderman</a>, and again in 2012 in a race for the ward's role of Democratic Committeeman.
OUT: Donne Trotter
Illinois Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, listens to testimony during a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, May 30, 2012 in Springfield Ill. Trotter <a href="http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20121126/BLOGS02/121129901/whos-in-whos-out-in-race-for-jesse-jackson-jr-s-seat-in-congress">told Crain's he is "in the race</a>" in November and his campaign continued <a href="http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/politics&id=8917342" target="_hplink">despite his arrest on a federal weapons charge</a>. Nevertheless, in late December, Trotter was <a href="http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=8934735" target="_hplink">ready to drop out of the race</a>. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
OUT: David Miller
Former Illinois Rep. David. Miller argues mass transit funding legislation while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008. Miller's name <a href="http://chicagoheights.patch.com/articles/2nd-congressional-district-special-election-could-cost-millions-of-dollars#youtube_video-12294335">has been floated in multiple media reports</a> on the upcoming special election. As of the Feb. 7 filing deadline, Miller had not officially entered the race.
OUT: Sam Adam Jr.
Sam Adam Jr., one of the former attorneys for ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, listens to testimony to the Illinois house impeachment committee January 8, 2009 in Springfield, Illinois. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/14/sam-adam-jr-congressional_n_2129165.html">Adam is considering a congressional run</a>. As of the Feb. 7 filing deadline, however, Adams was nowhere to be seen on the ballot.
OUT: Sandi Jackson
In this Feb. 16, 2011 file photo, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, wife of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is seen in her Chicago office. Jackson <a href="http://atlantablackstar.com/2012/11/23/sandi-jackson-wife-of-rep-jesse-jackson-jr-seen-as-possible-replacement-for-him/">had previously discussed her congressional aspirations</a> and <a href="http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20121210/chicago/will-ald-sandi-jackson-run-for-disgraced-husbands-seat-never-say-never" target="_hplink">told DNAinfo Chicago to "never say never</a>" to her taking a stab at the seat for a story published on Dec. 10. Later that day, however, she decided to say never: she proclaimed to the Associated Press that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/12/jesse-jackson-jr-house-race-wife-sandi-jackson_n_2283810.html" target="_hplink">she is not running for Congress</a>.
OUT: Will Burns
Chicago Alderman Will Burns walks in the Bud Billiken Parade. <a href="http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2012/11/21/race-to-replace-jackson-could-be-wild-wild-west/">Burns was reportedly interested</a> in succeeding Jackson in Congress. "We'll see," he told CBS Chicago. However, Burns <a href="http://hpherald.com/2012/11/30/will-burns-will-not-seek-2nd-district-seat/" target="_hplink">tweeted on Nov. 30</a> he would not seek Jesse Jackson Jr's seat.
OUT: Jonathan Jackson
Rev. Jesse Jackson, left, gets hugs from sons Jonathan, center, and Yusef following his speech at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 15, 2000, in Los Angeles. Jonathan Jackson is <a href="http://bigstory.ap.org/article/trouble-not-over-jesse-jackson-jr">rumored to be considering a run in the special election</a>, according to the Associated Press. In late November, NBC Chicago handicapped the race, <a href="http://www.nbcchicago.com/blogs/ward-room/Handicapping-the-2nd-District-Special-Election-181403141.html" target="_hplink">speculating the odds of Jonathan Jackson running to be 12-1. </a> However, in a Dec. 18 report on Fox Chicago, <a href="http://www.myfoxchicago.com/story/20378167/jesse-jackson-jr-brother-not-running-congress">Jackson said he will not be running</a> in the race.
OUT: Toni Preckwinkle
Though Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has consistently denied rumors that she is interested in running for other offices -- most recently, for Illinois governor -- <a href="http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2012/1124/Could-a-tea-partyer-replace-Rep.-Jesse-Jackson-Jr.">her name was also being floated as a possible Jackson successor</a>. On Dec. 4, Preckwinkle <a href="http://www.nbcchicago.com/blogs/ward-room/cook-county-board-president-toni-preckwinkle-illinois-second-congressional--182060081.html">called such rumors "complete and total nonsense</a>."
OUT: Todd Stroger
In this June 28, 2006 file photo, Todd Stroger answers a question at a news conference after a Chicago City Council meeting. <a href="http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/16542699-418/todd-stroger-weighs-bid-to-replace-jackson.html">Stroger was interested in Congress</a>, the Sun-Times reported. <strong>UPDATE:</strong> DNAinfo Chicago reports Stroger <a href="http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20121126/chicago/state-looks-into-500000-that-disappeared-from-todd-stroger-campaign-fund">is no longer considering a congressional run</a>.