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Running for Congress was Sandi’s idea. The couple were living in Washington, D.C., at the time-where Jesse Jr. had taken a job as the national field director for Rainbow PUSH-and neither of them was terribly impressed with the Second District incumbent, Mel Reynolds. Sandi suggested Jesse Jr. challenge Reynolds in the 1996 primary. Reverend Jackson was against it. “He didn’t think I was ready for it,” Jesse Jr. says. “And my mother wasn’t very supportive, initially.” Sometime in 1994, Jackson had taken the idea to Frank Watkins, the longtime press secretary and political director for Reverend Jackson who now works for Junior. “I ran some numbers and did some [research] and came back and said, ‘Yeah, I think we could [win],’” Watkins recalls. For about a year, Jackson took drives around the district with Martin King a couple of days a week to familiarize himself with the territory. And then he broached the idea of running to David Wilhelm, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who had returned home to Chicago. “I wouldn’t waste a name like yours on anything smaller than Congress,” Wilhelm told him.
Reverend Jackson still had to be convinced. One day Jesse Jr. arrived at his father’s house to find state senator Alice Palmer in the living room. “He had called her over,” says Jesse Jr. “He was trying to work out some kind of deal where we supported Alice for Congress and she supported me for her [state senate] seat. I didn’t agree with that!”
The congressional campaign came sooner than anyone expected. By October 1995, Reynolds was in prison for having had sex with an underage campaign volunteer, necessitating a special election. “Jesse was not prepared emotionally, financially, and every other way to run for Congress,” Watkins says, “but I told him this was his best chance. So we just took a chance on it.”
Once Reverend Jackson got on board, the big-name contributors fell in line, from sitting congressmen such as John Conyers and Charles Rangel, to celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Johnnie Cochran. About 60 percent of Jackson’s campaign contributions came from out of state.
Jackson’s opponents were bitter. “If he was named Jesse Smith, he wouldn’t even be a blip on the screen,” said Emil Jones Jr., who had been endorsed by the party and backed by Daley. State representative Monique Davis also saw Reverend Jackson at work. “Can you live through your son?” she asked. “I believe in America you do things for yourself.” Alice Palmer said she offered “leadership that’s proven, not promised.”
Few knew then what a meticulous organizer Jackson was. “The other side thought, ‘Well, Jesse [Jr.] will draw all the big crowds and so forth, but he won’t have the organization to do it,’” says Watkins. With a state-of-the-art computer system, the Jackson organization proved the naysayers wrong, and the candidate did well in the community debates and the one televised debate.
The results had a ripple effect. “[Palmer] expected to win, and she was supporting someone for her state senate seat-Barack Obama,” Jesse Jr. says. “The rest is history. We beat Alice in the race for Congress, she tried to take her senate seat back, Barack challenged her petitions, knocked her off the ballot, and Barack went to the state senate and I went to Congress.”
Jackson finished with 48 percent of the vote. Emil Jones came in second with 39 percent of the vote-no one has come even remotely as close to defeating Jackson since. Jackson easily beat Republican T. J. Somer in the general election. When President Bill Clinton called to offer his congratulations, Jackson lobbied the President for his airport.
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Within minutes of Jackson’s being sworn in by Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House who had been the target of much of the candidate’s campaign rhetoric, the Southwest Side congressman Bill Lipinski shook Jackson’s hand and welcomed him to the House. “Young man,” said Lipinski, dean of the Illinois Democratic delegation, “I could be very helpful to you in Congress, but I want to tell you something right now: You’re never going to get that airport.” Lipinski, whose Third District included Midway Airport, then blocked Jackson from gaining a seat on the Transportation Committee. He ended up on the Banking Committee instead. (Today Jackson serves on the Appropriations Committee, a much-sought-after assignment.)
Jackson’s congressional career has been more about bringing home the bacon than about passing legislation (which is tough when you are in the minority party) and/or moving up in the party machinery (which requires more fundraising than he has a taste for). “He’s a very hardworking man,” says Paul Green, the director of the School of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University. “He’s been pretty active and pretty visible in his district,” says Laura Washington, a Sun-Times columnist and professor at DePaul University. “He has a general voting record like all of the Chicago Democrats: liberal,” says the former alderman Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And in a recent op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, the author, essayist, and literary critic Joseph Epstein wrote that Jackson did “a fair impression of a serious politician.”
For someone as passionate about issues such as African trade, health care, and the federal budget, someone who dreams about amending the Constitution, Jackson is surprisingly well versed in on-the-ground details in his district. In fact, he is a bit of an infrastructure nerd, and no district may need that more than Illinois’ Second Congressional District. “We want to build things,” he says, citing his efforts to bring fresh water and flood relief to Ford Heights and to replace several “temporary” 75-year-old Metra stations. “If I get infrastructure, we’ll need fewer social service agencies.”
His bigger ideas are still works in progress. He is supporting a Native American–owned casino in Lynwood, for example. “Of course, there are those who would argue the South Side doesn’t need another bad habit,” he says. “I’m not an advocate of gambling, but the positive impacts of a casino, the revenue, are just undeniable.”
Another location ripe for a casino, he says, is the 573-acre property on the lakefront between 79th and 91st streets that was once home to the U.S. Steel South Works plant. Jackson previously tried to land a new Bears stadium or a movie lot for the site. (It’s not big enough for an airport.) Such a site, Jackson contends, would never have sat vacant for 13 years on the North Side.
Upon seeing the site in person, it’s hard not to agree with him. “One hundred thousand people could live on this site, in terms of condos and developments,” he says. “Well, 100,000 people would redraw every congressional district in the state. There are two wards here! It shifts the politics of this town. You’d have to draw these wards, redraw the state senate districts, the state representative districts. It changes everybody’s lives, and nobody wants their life changed.”
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“This is the Dixie Square Mall,” he announces, pulling into a parking lot in Harvey, the next stop on his district tour. “This mall has not been the same since Jake and Elwood Blues drove through it on a mission from God to get to an orphanage in downtown Chicago. That was the last time anything ever happened here.”
The mall looks as if it had been struck by a tornado-multiple times. “I don’t think we should drive in there,” Bryant says, as Jackson maneuvers the SUV down the mall’s onetime concourse, debris crackling under his tires. There is still a patchwork roof overhead. “This mall didn’t die because the roof collapsed,” Jackson says. “It died for want of someone shopping in it. This mall has collapsed and failed because the service-based economy has not made it to Harvey yet.”
That’s why, for Jackson, the mall is really about the airport. “People [won’t be] flying to the Abraham Lincoln airport because they want to get to Peotone,” he says. “People [will be] flying into Abraham Lincoln because they can’t get into [O’Hare]. I want them to fly into this airport to get them to drive through Harvey to get to Chicago. And when it comes to Harvey, I want to shake them down at my mall,” he says with a laugh. And for Jackson, the only way to make that particular dream a reality is to land the airport.
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