Jackson v. Halvorson: History, hugs and hometown politicking

March 15, 2012

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One of the most closely watched primary elections next Tuesday will be in Illinois' Second Congressional District. Represented by Democrat Jesse Jackson, Jr., the new boundaries for the district extend from Chicago through the south suburbs and all the way past Kankakee.

The last few years have been by far the toughest in Jackson's 16 years in Congress. Stung by an ongoing House ethics investigation, he faces a Democratic challenger for the first time in 8 years. It has been a long, strange road to this point.

Hugs for change

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Jackson stepped to the microphone at what had become a tense breakfast meeting of Illinois Democrats.

"Democratic parties are about reconciliation," he told the assembled delegates, determined to break that tension.

One by one, Jackson called out his rivals, including U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, and hugged them. He turned to Debbie Halvorson, an Illinois state senator at the time, running for Congress against Republican Marty Ozinga.

"Come on up here, Debbie Halvorson," he called out, beckoning a politician he'd fought for many years over plans for an airport in Peotone. "Lord knows I want to build an airport in the south suburbs. But make no mistake about it, I want a Democrat in Congress more than I want somebody named Ozinga."

The crowd laughed, Jackson hugged Halvorson and then Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. He even got the feuding Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Gov. Rod Blagojevich to hug.

Barack Obama, Jackson told the now-loosened up delegation, needed them to love each other. Then to go hug Ohio, Michigan, Florida.

"Go hug all of these states that are contentious and say, 'Listen. We can do this together. Yes, we can,'" he said to applause.

Jackson's speech brought a wave of welcome, if short-lived, spirit to Illinois Democrats. And he got a ton of good publicity, as the man who incited "hugfest" -  a leader, above the fray.

Until the bomb hit, three months later.

On the defense

"I was shocked and saddened to learn that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested yesterday by federal law enforcement officials," Jackson said at a Washington, D.C. press conference on December 10, 2008, the day after Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges.

The Blagojevich criminal complaint included a reference to Senate Candidate 5, someone hoping to be appointed to replace then-President-elect Barack Obama in the Senate. Supporters of this candidate had allegedly offered millions to Blagojevich in exchange for appointing their guy.

News reports quickly identified Jackson as Senate Candidate 5, and the congressman stated his defense to reporters.

"I did not initiate or authorize anyone at any time to promise anything to Governor Blagojevich on my behalf," he said.

Jackson did not take questions from reporters at the time, on the advice of his lawyer, he said. The congressman remained largely silent on this topic for years. He's never been charged with any crimes, though a congressional ethics investigation began.

Later, the Sun-Times reported that Jackson had directed a supporter to buy a plane ticket for a woman he was having an affair with. Nonetheless, he won in 2010 with more than 80 percent in the general election.

From a PR challenge to an electoral one

Last year, the once-a-decade redistricting process made the 2nd district more rural and it picked up Crete, the hometown of Jackson's old Democratic foe, a hug from his past.

"My name is Debbie Halvorson, and I am running for Congress," Halvorson announced in early October of last year.

Halvorson is no political novice, a one-time Mary Kay salesperson who became the first woman to serve as the Illinois Senate majority leader.

In the three-and-a-half years since Halvorson and Jackson hugged at the convention, Halvorson won a seat in Congress, and then lost it after a single term. Her comeback attempt, against Jackson, has been publicly focused not on the ethics investigation, but on what that investigation means for Jackson's focus.

"We need a congressman that doesn't have ethical distractions. Maybe that's why he can't get anything done anymore," she said.

This election has centered, for the most part, on three themes: ethics, that Peotone Airport that's yet to be built and - lastly - support for President Obama.

Both campaigns fail the fact check

In radio ads, both candidates have cited different stats about who supported the president more.

"Halvorson voted with the Republicans and against President Obama 88 times," said U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, in a radio ad aired by Jackson's campaign.

That number is based off a misleading presumption from the Jackson campaign that all votes against the Democratic majority are votes against Mr. Obama, even on issues the president is staying out of.

(Halvorson "is running for the Democratic nomination," said Jackson spokesman Kevin Lampe. "She should vote with the Democrats when she's in Congress.")

Meanwhile, Halvorson's claim of presidential support is also misleading.

"I voted with [Mr. Obama] 90 percent of the time," Halvorson said this week on WTTW public television. "My opponent, Jesse Jackson, Jr., voted with him only 79 percent of the time."

Halvorson was citing numbers from Congressional Quarterly for votes from only one year - 2010. If you combine the scores for the 2 years they served together in Congress, Jackson and Halvorson's numbers are nearly identical.

(Halvorson's campaign manager, Jamie Crain, defended the focus on just the 2010 votes. "The year the Democrats lost the House to the Tea Party, Congressman Jackson didn't stand by President Obama when the president needed him most," she said in an email.)

This issue aside, the president has endorsed Jackson - though only through aides, like campaign strategist David Axelrod.

"Congressman Jackson was very supportive of the president when he ran for the U.S. Senate back in 2004," Axelrod said in a recent interview with WBEZ. "They've worked together on things. So, you know, that is...a friendship."

Asked if the endorsement could pose a political risk to Mr. Obama given Jackson's pending ethics investigation, Axelrod wouldn't go there.

"I'm not going to enter into that discussion. You know, let that process run," he replied.

Everything is local

Someone who's not at all reluctant to speak about Jackson is Rich Hofeld. The village president of south suburban Homewood for the last 15 years, Hofeld is a longtime Jackson supporter who's endorsed the congressman for re-election.

Jackson, Hofeld said last week, helped get federal funding for Homewood to build a small tourist attraction.

"I can't tell you how many people come into town to look at the rail-watching platform. I had no idea what a rail watching [was]," Hofeld said. "A rail-watching platform, I found from our rail committee (we do have a rail committee in town), it's where essentially the rail buffs go, and they watch trains."

Jackson has an office in Homewood, a 5-minute drive from village hall. Hofeld said they see each other often. A few years back, when the story broke about Jackson's extra-marital affair, the congressman called him, Hofeld recalled, maybe three times trying to reach him.

"And when he finally did get through to me...he said, 'My wife and I have reconciled this over the years, but I sincerely apologize for any possible embarrassment...that I might have caused you,'" Hofeld said. "I'm not the only mayor that he called. He called most of those that were his supporters. And I think that's the mark of a man that admits that he had done something wrong, and apologizes for it."

Hofeld also knows Debbie Halvorson, because for years she represented part of Homewood in the state Senate. Hofeld admitted he's biased, but said he couldn't name anything she'd done for his town.

The view is strikingly different on the other side of Halsted Street, in the village of Glenwood. Mayor Kerry Durkin said last week he wasn't going to officially endorse in the election because, he said, nothing good ever comes of stuff like that.

Still, he praised Debbie Halvorson over and over for the attention she paid to Glenwood in the state Senate. And while he said Jackson's staff is top-notch, he sees damage from Jackson's ethics issues.

"Has it interferred with his ability to do his job here? Yes. Because it's made him invisible," Durkin said. "I've been mayor since 2009. I've seen him three times maybe in that time frame. Ask me how many times I've seen Debbie Halvorson who isn't even my congresswoman."

How many times?

"Good God, I can't even think," he replied.

A few days after that interview, Durkin changed his mind about not endorsing in the congressional race. One thing that changed his mind, Durkin acknowledged in an email, was straight-up political.

A few years back Halvorson endorsed Durkin's slate of candidates in a Glenwood village election. Jackson also got involved in the local race, but he backed Durkin's opponents.