The resignation of Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. has opened a pipeline of aspiring Chicago Democrats eyeing the vacant seat.
Less than a week after the Illinois Democrat announced his departure from Congress, as many as 20 potential candidates — including several well-known figures — could run for the 2nd District seat in southern Chicagoland.
On Monday, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn scheduled the special election primary for Feb. 26. Given that the victor should cruise through the general election, primary voters will effectively pick the next Congress member for this heavily Democratic seat.
As of Monday afternoon, the following Democrats had expressed interest in running or announced their campaigns:
Alderman Anthony Beale is considering a bid, according to multiple sources. His spokeswoman, Delmarie Cobb, did not return a message seeking comment before press time Monday. Beale briefly flirted with challenging Jackson in the March primary but did not run.
Alderman Will Burns is also seriously considering a bid and told Roll Call that he will make a statement “shortly.” He lives just outside the 2nd District, and there had been speculation he would seek the seat held by neighboring Democratic Rep. Bobby L. Rush when he retires.
Cook County Chief Administrative Officer Robin Kelly told Roll Call that she plans to formally announce her decision about the race on Sunday. In the meantime, she’s building “support” and a “foundation” for if she runs. A 20-year resident of the district, Kelly unsuccessfully ran for Illinois treasurer in 2010.
The Rev. Corey Brooks tweeted his interest in the race over the weekend. Known as the “Pastor on the Roof,” Brooks camped out on top of a vacant South Side motel last year until he raised the $450,000 needed to build a community center on its plot. After 94 days, director Tyler Perry kicked in the remaining funds and Brooks climbed down.
Ex-Rep. Debbie Halvorson became the first candidate to kick off a campaign Monday morning. In an interview, she said she “can hit the ground running” if elected, given her prior experience in Congress. She hails from the southern part of the district, which she represented in the state Legislature and in Congress.
State Sen.-elect Napoleon Harris has not even started in the Legislature yet, but he’s expressed interest in running for this seat. The former NFL linebacker loaned his state Senate bid about $230,000 — and there’s more where that came from. Harris, also the owner of two Beggars Pizza shops, would have the money to run fast and hard.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson said in an interview that she’s “leaning heavily” toward a bid and will be “ready to make an announcement in the next couple days.” A former chief of staff to Halvorson, Hutchinson took her boss’ state Senate seat when Halvorson went to Congress. In an interview, Hutchinson said: “For me, this is not about who I can be. It’s about what we can do. And I honestly think it’s time for a new generation of leadership.”
Former state Rep. David Miller is also looking at the race. In 2010, the dentist won the Democratic nomination for state comptroller but lost in the general election.
State Sen. Donne Trotter is making noise about running for the seat, sources said. In 2000, Trotter unsuccessfully challenged Rush in the same primary as one of his colleagues, then-state Sen. Barack Obama.
Democrats speculate someone in the Jackson family might run for the seat, such as his wife, Alderwoman Sandi Jackson, or one of his brothers. Sandi Jackson’s candidacy could clear the field despite her husband’s troubles.
But it’s increasingly unlikely anyone in the family can muster a campaign while they deal with the aftermath of Jackson’s departure. Jackson announced his resignation last week amid reports he was negotiating a plea deal with federal investigators over alleged campaign fund misuse.
As long as a Jackson family member stays out of the race, the 2nd District remains an attractive prize. First, local officeholders do not need to give up their current seats to run in the special election. What’s more, an open House seat in Chicago is rare: Jackson served eight terms, Rush has served 10 terms and nearby Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis has served eight terms.
The large field of candidates, combined with a short 115-day race, makes for an unpredictable contest.
It’s a challenge to get voters to the polls in the cold Chicago winter — just ask Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill. He won the early March special primary for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former 5th District with just more than 12,000 votes, about 22 percent of the vote.
The 2nd District race stands to be even more crowded than the field Quigley had to navigate. As a result, it’s possible that the winner might take the seat with less than 10,000 votes. That could mean there’s an opening for Halvorson to come back to Congress in this black-majority district.
“When you get 7 to 10 credible black candidates running, that’s going to split up the black vote,” one prominent black Chicago Democrat said. “The fear of the black establishment here is that you’re going to have so many black people running, and Debbie Halvorson being the only white candidate, she could very well win a primary where 15 percent could yield a winner.”
Halvorson challenged Jackson in the primary last March and received less than 30 percent of the vote. But she stands a stronger chance as the only suburban candidate in a crowded field.
Local black leaders have publicly discussed a process to winnow the primary field and throw their support behind one or several candidates. But similar efforts in recent contests proved unsuccessful.