Ex-Rep. Reynolds Seeks to Overcome Conviction, Displace Jackson

Posted October 7, 2003 at 6:22pm

Former Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.), a convicted felon whose prison term was commuted by then-President Bill Clinton, launched a full-throttle campaign Tuesday to regain his former House seat.

Charging that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) is “invisible” to constituents in his South Side Chicago district, Reynolds said he is running as an “independent Democrat” against the 38-year-old Congressman, who won a 1995 special election to replace Reynolds.

“I’m running for re-election,” Reynolds said in a telephone interview late Tuesday afternoon. “What made me do it was the constituents that came to me and expressed to me that the current Congressman is not doing his job.”

Reynolds said he started doing focus groups in June and also touted polling data to reinforce his belief that Jackson is vulnerable to a primary challenge.

The poll, conducted Aug. 27-30 by McCulloch Research and Polling, surveyed 400 registered Democratic voters and had a 3 percent margin of error. The Chicago-based Republican polling firm has also done work for four local Democratic candidates, according to company head Rod McCulloch

Of those surveyed, 40 percent said they would vote for Jackson, 32 percent said they would vote for Reynolds and 28 percent were undecided in the hypothetical matchup.

Reynolds opened a campaign office Tuesday and said he has a full staff already in place.

“We plan on running a full, completely wired campaign and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Jackson’s office released a statement Tuesday in response to Reynolds’ announcement, although it did not refer to his predecessor 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.”

The release also detailed a laundry list of Jackson’s accomplishments while in the House, including his work toward building new Metra stations along the South Shore Line and securing more than $1 billion for the Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative.

“This is a record any congressperson would be proud to run on,” Jackson said in the release, which also noted he has missed only one vote during his eight years in Congress.

Jackson faced two candidates in the Democratic primary last year and received 85 percent of the vote.

Reynolds was elected in 1992, beating then-Rep. Gus Savage in his third attempt to win the 2nd district Democratic primary.

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 convicted of misusing campaign funds and defrauding banks, although he has refuted many of the claims made by prosecutors.

Reynolds 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 right before he left the White House in January 2001, Reynolds took an administrative job at Salem Baptist Church, located on the far South Side of Chicago. The church’s pastor, James T. Meeks, is an ally of the Congressman’s father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who helped lobby Clinton for Reynolds’ pardon. Meeks is now a state Senator.

Reynolds, meanwhile, is now executive director of the New Hope Community Development Commission, a social service and community development organization that works within the South Side suburbs. The commission is run by St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church.

“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.”

If Reynolds were to win election, the House would have little choice but to officially seat the convicted felon, under the landmark 1969 Supreme Court ruling holding that the House had unconstitutionally excluded former Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.).

The sole qualifications for election to the House under the Constitution are age, citizenship and inhabitancy in the state.

Since 1789, 10 people have been denied House seats after winning election. Four were accused of disloyalty to the Union during the Civil War, one was said not to be a resident of the district in which he was elected and another, a Mormon, was accused of violating laws against polygamy.

Socialist Victor Berger of Wisconsin was twice excluded, in 1919 and 1920, for publishing anti-war statements. Berger was re-elected both times. After the Supreme Court reversed his conviction, Berger was sent back to the House three more times and was seated each time.

In 1967 the House voted 307-116 to exclude the flamboyant Powell, who was accused of a long list of allegations involving financial misconduct, including taking pleasure trips at government expense, paying his wife for work she did not perform and neglecting his House duties.

Although the House refused to seat Powell in the 90th Congress, he won re-election in the 91st and was then allowed to take his seat. But the Supreme Court held that the exclusion of Powell in the 90th Congress was unconstitutional because the reasons for the action went beyond the three qualifications of age, citizenship, and inhabitancy in the state. That case has largely settled the question on the power of the House to exclude.

Theoretically, the House could move to expel Reynolds for his past misconduct after he was seated. But that step would be unlikely because the long-standing, traditional view of the disciplinary powers of the House holds that the people’s decision in electing their representative should not be overruled.

“The reticence of the House to expel a Member for past misconduct after the Member has been re-elected by his or her constituents, with knowledge of the Member’s conduct, appears to reflect the deference traditionally paid in our heritage to the popular will and election choice of the people,” Justice Joseph Story wrote in 1883.

Both the House and the Senate have not as a practice expelled a Member for past misconduct when constituents knew of the conduct and still elected or re-elected the Member, according to a 2002 Congressional Research Service report.

The issue surfaced briefly after the expulsion in 2002 of Rep. James Traficant (D) of Ohio. Despite his conviction and eight-year prison sentence, Traficant appeared as a candidate for re-election to the House. But he lost the race, garnering 15 percent of the vote.