Jesse Jackson Jr. has had a bad couple of years.
Voters in the Democratic primary in the 2nd Congressional District are about to tell him.
Nobody is predicting defeat for the incumbent congressman, who first was elected to the office in 1995 and has picked up 80 percent of the vote in subsequent elections. But polls show that two recent scandals – accusations that he tried to buy a Senate seat from former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and allegations of an extramarital affair – have taken a toll. Polls in January showed Jackson with a strong, but not necessarily run-away, lead of 13 or 14 points over his primary race challenger, former one-term Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson.
Adding to Jackson’s vulnerability, the newly drawn 2nd District stretches from the South Side all the way to Kankakee, including the area around Peotone where he wants to build a third regional airport. The district now includes Chicago Heights, where Halvorson grew up, and Crete, where she lives, as well as much of the suburban part of her old 11th District. In 2010, Halvorson lost the seat – badly – to Republican Adam Kinzinger.
Halvorson is playing up three themes in this race: Her loyalty to President Obama, her personal story of hard-won wisdom through adversity (having raised four children as a single mother by selling Mary Kay cosmetics) and her success in creating jobs during her brief time in Washington. She was influential, above all, in getting the Pentagon to approve the expansion of a massive warehouse facility in her old district, which created jobs.
Jackson has countered by listing President Obama among those endorsing his re-election bid, an endorsement confirmed by Sun-Times Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet. And Jackson says he has brought $900 million in federal investments to the district, “more than any other congressman in the state during that period.” Better yet for the congressman once the project finally gets under way, he has spear-headed a long effort to build the third airport, which he says would create 15,000 jobs.
Jackson and Halvorson are tried-and-true Democrats, but Jackson – who is, after all, his father’s son – calls for more boldly liberal remedies, often involving enormous federal expenditures.
To spur the economy, Jackson proposes spending $2.4 trillion over six years for a “direct massive investment in public works” such as new roads, high-speed rail and replacing old sewer lines. He would spend $200 billion more to bail out the states and another $100 billion to bail out cities and counties. He would raise tax rates to Clinton-era levels, advocate for a single-payer health-care system, and have the federal government “come to the rescue” of homeowners facing foreclosures if the banks won’t renegotiate loans.
Halvorson, in contrast, generally takes a more modest Mr. Fix-it approach, calling for an unspecified amount of federal spending on infrastructure projects, tax credits for small businesses that hire more workers, eliminating tax incentives for companies to shift manufacturing jobs overseas, and making it easier for homeowners to modify or refinance underwater mortgages.
No doubt reluctant to be pressed further publicly about a U.S. House ethics probe of his dealings with Blagojevich for the open Senate seat, Jackson has been on the campaign stump but declined most media interviews. Halvorson, on the other hand, has been everywhere, including a local media Christmas party. As always, she talked quite a bit about the personal challenges she and her family have faced, such as how her mother, suffering from cancer, struggled to pay her medical bills until she finally was eligible for Medicare.
“But adversity is what makes you a better person,” Halvorson said.
Jesse Jackson Jr. might be inclined to agree.