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How Did Jesse Jackson Jr. Keep Getting Elected?

His incumbency was a huge advantage (and as with many incumbents, may have played a role in his ethical lapses), and his focus on building a Chicago machine while bringing federal aid was a cornerstone. But Jackson was also one of the most reliably progressive votes in the House—to an extent that cost him on the national level.

Jesse Jackson Jr

 

Since he mysteriously disappeared to go on medical leave, I haven’t seen or heard any praise of Jesse Jackson, Jr. from anyone other than who you’d expect. Sympathy, yes; lamentations that his political career topped out in the House, here and there. But not much has been said about his tenure in the House, particularly before he surfaced in the Blagojevich investigations. Which raises the question: why did anyone vote for him, much less re-elect him year after year?

Incumbency is a critical factor; there are few safer bets than House incumbents, who have never been re-elected below an 85 percent rate since 1964 (incumbency is also an advantage in the Senate, but  senators are considerably more vulnerable. Jamelle Bouie, writing when Jackson had become embroiled in the Blago saga, pointed out that the safety of incumbents has an unfortunate side effect: it increases corruption, and Jackson was one of several members of the Congressional Black Caucus under investigation for possible violations of House ethics rules.

It’s worth noting that each of those eight black Democrats come from safe seats, which they’ve held for six terms or more. Together, the CBC members currently or formerly under investigation – Reps. Rangel, Waters, Carolyn Kilpatrick, Donald Payne, Gregory Meeks, Bennie Thompson, Mel Watt, and Jesse Jackson Jr. – have served 80 terms in Congress, an average of 10 terms per person. They represent districts with an average black population of 51.45 percent, and a median black population of 55.8 percent. Insofar that there is an ethics problem within the Congressional Black Caucus, it almost certainly has to do with the fact that these members have an astoundingly high rate of incumbency. With few challengers and total control over their local party organizations, it’s no surprise that they’ve become lax in their ethical responsibilities.

Beyond the CBC, most of the other House members under investigation were long-serving incumbents as well. Bouie’s suggestion is to prioritize competitiveness while redistricting, something political parties are loath to do for obvious reasons, but it is a reform idea that’s regularly floated:

The plan by Republicans (which control the legislature and governor’s office) won approval, but Fortner hopes the idea of a redistricting contest catches on in other states.

He calls it the “competition model,” as opposed to the independent-commission model most often discussed as an alternative to the current redistricting process, which is often criticized for protecting incumbents and the interests of political parties.

“The Founding Fathers would have wanted highly competitive districts, to see legislatures change with the whims of the public,” Fortner says. “Unfortunately, we’ve gone away from that.”

In the two big narratives about Jackson’s fall that have been published—by Steve Rhodes in Chicago and Jason Zengerle in New York—it emerges that Jackson was a much better Chicago politician than a Washington politician. Zengerle, for instance, writes:

(People on the Hill say that it’s telling that the only congressman to visit Jackson at the Mayo Clinic has been Dennis Kucinich.) “He was not a guy who seemed to warm to the artificial camaraderie of the House,” Davis says. Although Jackson frequently claimed that he hoped to be the first black speaker of the House, his heart never seemed in the pursuit. “People who talk about wanting to be in leadership are rarely successful at it and he never really worked to cultivate those relationships with members,” a senior Democratic House aide says. “He was good at the presentation of politics, but the actual behind-the-scenes execution was always a little clumsy.”

Instead, Jackson’s focus was back in Chicago, where he was building a formidable political machine. In the basement of his house, a block from Lake Michigan, Junior constructed a campaign war room.

Rhodes makes a convincing case that Jackson’s national profile stalled not just because of personality or execution, but for ideological reasons as well:

In 2005, he found himself being talked up for a mayoral run. In retrospect, it turned out to be the high point of his career, for by now his prospects on Capitol Hill had stalled. Not hewing lockstep to the party line kept him from rising into Democratic leadership, as did his distaste for party fundraising (which helped Rahm Emanuel gain influence). And while bipartisan at home, he was ideologically more liberal than his party’s leadership in Washington.

Jackson was indeed fairly left-wing by House standards:

And this has been neglected a bit in Jackson’s political obits: the degree to which Jackson was a reliably progressive vote. John Nichols runs through his career through the lens of ideology, pointing out just how Jackson bucked his party:

From the moment the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson was elected to the House in a 1995 special election, he began compiling one of the most independent and reform-oriented records in the chamber. Jackson clashed not just with the economic royalists on the right but with Democrats who chose to compromise with the forces of reaction, militarism and austerity. This consistency cost him politically; it was tougher for him to raise money and to attain the powerful positions that are apportioned to those who compromise with the unconscionable.

[snip]

Jackson condemned George W. Bush’s free-trade agenda. But he did more than that. He opposed free-trade deals promoted by former President Clinton and by President Obama. He even broke with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1998 to oppose the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA, as that deal was known, was dubbed “NAFTA for Africa” by the business press. Jackson refused to accept the spin from Wall Street and its political echo chamber. He took the counsel of South African President Nelson Mandela and Africa trade unionists who decried the act as a move to make it even easier for multinational corporations to exploit the continent’s workers and resources.

The 2nd district is the third-most Democratic district in Illinois, just behind the 7th (represented by Danny Davis) and the 1st (represented by Bobby Rush). And as many advantages as Jackson had otherwise—incumbency, name, his machine, and the federal aid he brought home—Jackson represented the lean of his district.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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