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After lobbying for a presidential pardon on behalf of then-imprisoned former Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.) almost three years ago, members of the Congressional Black Caucus provided scarce support last week when their former colleague said he will challenge one of their own in an effort to get his old job back. Reynolds, whose prison sentence was commuted in early 2001 by a last-minute pardon from then-President Bill Clinton, announced last week that he will run against Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) in the party’s primary next March. Jackson has represented the South Side Chicago seat since winning a 1995 special election to replace Reynolds, who resigned after being convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) likened Reynolds’ chances of regaining his old seat to those of someone who buys a lottery ticket when the jackpot soars, and said he wasn’t willing to bet on his candidacy.
“I would think that he has about as much chance of winning in the second Congressional district as a snowball would have of surviving in the Sahara desert,” Davis said. “But you still can have hope.”
Although Davis called the situation “unfortunate,” he said he did not feel betrayed by Reynolds’ decision to run.
“I don’t even think the Jacksons feel that,” Davis said. “Many people think this is ludicrous, to be quite honest about it.”
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) described her former colleague as “a troubled man” in need of counseling at the time of his indictment. “All I know is what I’ve read and it seemed to me that he probably needed some therapy,” Johnson said last week. “I can’t speak for the CBC, but I am backing Jackson.”
Other caucus members agreed.
“The Congressman strongly, strongly supports Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in his re-election,” said William Marshall, spokesman for Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who submitted Reynolds’ name to Clinton for the pardon.
Among those who also lobbied for Reynolds’ pardon were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Congressman’s father, as well as several other members of the CBC, Reynolds recalled in an interview last week.
“I appreciate what he did,” he said, referring to the elder Jackson, whose 1984 presidential campaign Reynolds worked on. “I appreciate every single member of the caucus. Their goal was to get me out so that I could go help my children.”
Reynolds resigned his seat in 1995 after he was convicted of sexual misconduct and other charges involving an affair he had with a 16-year-old campaign worker. In 1997, he was also convicted of misusing campaign funds and defrauding banks, although he has quarreled with many of the prosecutors’ claims.
He served two and a half years in prison on the sex charges and was sentenced to six and a half years on the fraud charges.
After being pardoned by Clinton in early 2001, Reynolds took an administrative job at Salem Baptist Church, located on the far South Side of Chicago. The church’s pastor, James Meeks, is an ally of the Rev. Jackson and board member of Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH organization. Meeks is now a state Senator.
One Hill Democrat knowledgeable in Chicago politics questioned Reynolds’ motives and whether he was planning to run a full-fledged campaign.
“You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” the source said, citing all of the former Congressman’s ties to the Jacksons. “I just have a hard time believing that Mel Reynolds would actually run against Jackson in a real race.”
But in announcing his candidacy, Reynolds accused Jackson of being “invisible” in his district. He also touted polling numbers that he said showed people in the district feel he was treated unfairly.
“I want to run to get my old job back because I think I was doing an outstanding job for the district,” Reynolds said.
He also argued that his status as a convicted felon, whose name appears on the state’s sex offender registry, would not hinder his campaign.
“That may sound really horrible in your world, but I live in a world where it doesn’t sound that horrible to have an African American convicted felon,” he said. “There’s racism in our justice system and that racism doesn’t just apply when it comes to death penalty cases.”
Borrowing a phrase from the late Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), Reynolds vowed to make a competitive run against the 38-year-old Congressman, who he acknowledged may appear “unbeatable and invincible” when viewed from Washington, D.C..
“All politics is local,” he said. “You will never see a more local race than this one.”
Reynolds has opened a campaign office and said he has a campaign staff in place.
Jackson’s office released a statement in response to Reynolds’ announcement last week, although it did not refer to him by name.
“Today a candidate announced that he will be seeking the Democratic nomination in the Second Congressional District during the March 16, 2004 primary,” Jackson said. “Others may announce in the future. I take all opponents seriously, but I will run on my record of accomplishment, of which I am very proud.”
Jackson faced two opponents in the Democratic primary last year and received 85 percent of the vote.
Reynolds was elected in 1992, beating incumbent Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.) in his third attempt to win the 2nd district Democratic primary. At the time he was elected, Reynolds was hailed nationally because Savage’s career had been filled with charges of absenteeism, sexual harassment and bigotry against whites and Jews specifically.
In contrast, Reynolds had a compelling life story and résumé. He was born in Mississippi and rose from rat-infested surroundings on Chicago’s South Side to become a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar.
The 53-year-old former lawmaker is currently executive director of the New Hope Community Development Commission, a social service organization that works within the South Side suburbs. The commission is part of St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church, headed by Bishop Willie Jordan, who is serving as chairman of Reynolds’ campaign.
“The bottom line is my past is my past,” Reynolds said. “I don’t wear mistakes that I have made as a badge of shame, just as I don’t wear all of my accomplishments as a badge of confidence.”
He added: “[The Rev.] Jesse Jackson has said 100 times people make mistakes. ... I say amen to that.”
Davis said he believes Reynolds has been influenced by Jackson’s teachings.
“One of the things that Jesse Jackson Sr. always taught was to keep hope alive and so I suspect that it influenced Mel and so he’s got hope,” Davis said. “I guess it’s good that he’s still got so much self-esteem, not withstanding the difficulty that he’s had.”