CHICAGO — Former Illinois state Rep. Robin Kelly, whose campaign received a $2 million boost from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, easily captured Tuesday's special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
The win for the Matteson Democrat was widely expected as the Chicago-area district, which Jackson represented from 1995 until late last year, has been a Democratic stronghold for roughly six decades. Kelly emerged from a crowded field in the February primary by focusing heavily on anti-gun efforts and was helped by ads from Bloomberg's super PAC.
Kelly, 56, vowed to become a leader in the federal fight for gun control legislation and echoed the promise after her win.
"I'll continue to speak about it in the district. I'll continue to be in touch with those who have lost their children. I'll speak out where I can in D.C.," she told The Associated Press before her victory speech in Matteson.
She easily won over Republican community activist Paul McKinley, three independent candidates and a Green Party candidate in the district that includes city neighborhoods, suburbs and rural areas.
Her win also marked the end of an era for voters who had supported Jackson at the polls with healthy majorities each election after he took office. The Chicago Democrat stepped down in November after a mysterious medical leave where full details were never disclosed to the public. He cited his health and acknowledged he was under federal investigation in his resignation letter.
Months later – as campaigning to replace him ramped up – he pleaded guilty to charges that he misspent $750,000 in campaign funds on everything from toilet paper to furs.
Jackson was the third congressman in the district to leave under an ethical cloud, and many voters said Tuesday that they were just ready for a change.
"It hurt my heart. I had him way up here on a pedestal," said Robert Pierson, a Dolton resident who cast a ballot for Kelly on Tuesday. "I hope this time we are going to get it right."
Other voters said it was Kelly's attention to anti-gun efforts that made her an attractive candidate. Guns became the top issue during the campaign – particularly before the primary – and ads from Bloomberg's PAC played up that Kelly supports an assault weapons ban. The television spots also targeted one of her primary opponents, former one-term U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who has received favorable ratings from the National Rifle Association.
Some voters, and certainly Kelly's political opponents, questioned the outside involvement. There were allegations of Kelly colluding with Bloomberg, which is prohibited. She dismissed those claims.
However, some voters said Tuesday they didn't mind Bloomberg's involvement, particularly on the issue of guns and violence. The election comes as Chicago has seen an uptick in murders.
"Mayor Bloomberg, he's for right," said 62-year-old suburban Chicago voter Ted Norwood, who cast a vote for Kelly. "He speaks for everybody."
After her primary win, Kelly received praise from Bloomberg and Vice President Joe Biden, and she recently received an endorsement from President Barack Obama, who noted her anti-gun efforts.
McKinley, 54, had portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate, blasting Chicago's machine politics. McKinley is an ex-convict who served prison time for robbery and other charges. On the campaign trail, he talked about his reintegration into society and how it made him a voice for inmates.
He said Tuesday that he wished Kelly good luck.
"The voters have voted, and she must work for the voters and not for the machine," he told the AP.
When Kelly heads to Washington she will face other challenges. She'll be taking over after Jackson, a nearly 17-year incumbent with a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Despite Jackson's legal problems at the end of his career – he was under a House Ethics Committee investigation for ties to ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich – he brought home close to $1 billion in federal money to the district. He also had strong ties with community leaders and a family legacy. His wife was a former Chicago City Council member, and he's the son of civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Kelly said she's ready for the challenge and had already considered where to set up constituent offices in the district that overlaps with some of her old legislative district. Kelly served two terms as a representative in the Illinois House.
Voter turnout was low in several parts of the district. Tuesday's special election coincided with municipal elections – not including Chicago, which elected its mayor and City Council in 2011. Early estimates for city precincts were roughly 8 percent with an anticipated 12 percent by day's end. Election officials said turnout was expected to be higher than the 2009 special election to replace Rahm Emanuel, who left Congress to be President Obama's chief of staff. In that year, roughly 10 percent of city voters went to the polls.
Turnout was higher in the suburbs, particularly areas with contested municipal elections.
Jackson, who has stayed out of the public eye since his medical leave last summer, appeared in federal court in February, where his wife Sandi Jackson also pleaded guilty. He faces up to 57 months – more than four years – in prison and a fine, under a plea deal with prosecutors.
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