PEMBROKE, Ill. — Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is rarely seen in the Capitol without his trademark Bluetooth earpiece. But in this rural, undeveloped and impoverished town an hour and a half south of Chicago, there is no cellphone reception.
There aren't even electrical outlets in the municipal building where Jackson met with some of his soon-to-be constituents on Monday afternoon.
The predominantly black audience isn't new for the impeccably tailored seminarian son of a civil rights leader. But the sprawling farm fields are.
"This is unemployed; this is employed. This is us. This is them. This poor! This rich!" the Chicago Democrat fired off in his preacher's voice while pacing in front of a massive Illinois map. "You're hiring a giant in a week. It's that 'Jesse thing' in me. I just can't let it go!"
As disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) begins his 14-year sentence at a Colorado prison today, Jackson — known as "Junior" on Chicago's South Side, where his last name is synonymous with civil rights politics — is a few days from surviving the toughest re-election race of his career.
Jackson became intertwined with Blagojevich in the headlines after it was revealed he was "Senate candidate Number 5" in U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the corrupt governor's plot to sell a Senate appointment. The Congressman denies any wrongdoing and maintains he was never a target of the investigation.
But between taking the witness stand for the governor's defense and a House Ethics Committee investigation, Jackson got distracted from politics at home, and it showed.
"I think he probably got complacent," said Frank Zuccarelli, a Jackson supporter and party leader in Thornton Township, Ill. "I don't think he forgot, but he got a little complacent. He's really started to pay more attention again."
Jackson was forced to come home again when his fellow Democrats redrew the Congressional map last year, spreading his urban 2nd district south into some of the state's most rural territory.
He faces longtime nemesis former Rep. Debbie Halvorson in Tuesday's Democratic primary, which the Congressman is expected to win handily.
"I wouldn't call it complacent. I've been real busy," Jackson joked in an interview outside his Kankakee, Ill., campaign office. "Mr. Fitzgerald kept me pretty busy. I wouldn't call that complacent. When Mr. Fitzgerald's got you in the general purview of a process, there's no complacency there."
A Textbook, Skilled Campaign
Many district voters don't know the details of Blagojevich's crimes or Jackson's role in the pay-to-play scandal. But in cynical Chicagoland politics, even getting close to corruption is enough to turn off a voter.
"I just know something about deceit and the seat in the Senate, they were trying to sell that seat and they couldn't get it done," said Thelma Corley, an 86-year-old retired teacher. "I've never really liked what I've heard about [Jackson]. I just think he's radical, and he's trying to be as smart as his dad [the Rev. Jesse Jackson], and he isn't."
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