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Jackson’s Eye on Primary Prize

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

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."

At the outset of the race, Halvorson appeared to be Jackson's foil this cycle. She had represented three quarters of the redrawn district in office, including rural parts of Illinois that aren't familiar with "Junior." Halvorson's public feud with Jackson to control a third Chicago airport — which, if ever constructed, will be in the 2nd district — fueled her zeal to defeat him.

The spite between the two former colleagues is infamous, despite their denials.

"It's not a vendetta," Halvorson said in an interview. "Maybe he dislikes me more than I dislike him. It's not him personally; I just don't give him that much credit."

It seemed like Halvorson might have a decent shot a few months ago, but a funny thing happened on the way to the primary: Jackson ran a textbook, skilled campaign.

On a Monday evening, Halvorson and her husband attended a listening party in South Holland, Ill., with only two people in the audience. After knocking on 60 doors to summon a crowd to the house, Halvorson's field organizer returned empty-handed with a simple explanation: "There's a Bulls game on," he said.

Nonetheless, even in the small discussion, the most heated questions revolved around Jackson and Blagojevich.

"Between [Jackson] and the Senate seat, what's up with that? Was he trying to buy the seat?" asked Gilbert Oliveras, a 50-year-old South Holland resident.

Jackson said the House Ethics panel will vindicate him, given that Fitzgerald's "exhaustive" investigation turned up nothing. But Halvorson raised the stakes and countered with another rationale.

"People tell me that's because he was a snitch, he wore a wire and got immunity," Halvorson charged. "Well, people don't wear a wire unless they were found guilty of something."

Either way, Jackson denied that he helped federal prosecutors take down Blagojevich on tape.

"I've never worn a wire, [was] never asked to wear one," Jackson said in a wide-ranging interview. "I don't work for the government. I'm a U.S. Congressman."

Daddy's Boy

After serving 17 years in Congress, many voters still know Jackson from his father, an activist and two-time presidential candidate. Even if the Blagojevich drama never unfolded, he'd still have something to prove.

"He knows, as a Jackson, he has always had to prove himself harder," Cook County Commissioner John Daley said after Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade. "When he was first elected, he was judged differently than other people would [be] going to the Congress because of his last name. He had to prove himself."

Even so, Jackson knows he can't convince everyone his accomplishments should stand on their own. He laughs when local news outlets still mix up Jackson Jr. and Jackson Sr. at press conferences.

"I haven't seen him much," said Mercedes Brewer, a retired Marshall Fields waitress in Calumet City, Ill. "I like his father better."

Jackson confessed he's experienced an "internal battle" over whether to use his father on the campaign trail.

On the one hand, the lawmaker won't let his father open a headquarters for his organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, in the 2nd district. But the Congressman also attended a Rainbow PUSH forum this month where he received the endorsement of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

As the sun set on a defunct Kankakee railroad station outside his campaign office, Jackson sentimentally described how his 70-year-old father still calls him every day. He acknowledges it will probably take some time for his new constituents to warm up to him.

"There will be a courting period of who is Jesse Jackson, Jr.?" he said. "'Are you your Dad's son? Is your Dad coming to everything?' It takes a term, maybe two, that's been my experience, for people to say, 'Hey, this guy is doing the job objectively.'"

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