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Jackson's absence testing patience in Chicago

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FILE: March 20, 2012: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. speaks in Chicago.AP

His home in Washington is for sale. His wife says he'll come back to work only when a doctor approves. He vowed to return to the campaign by Labor Day, a deadline that came ... and went.

Election Day is five weeks away, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. remains out of sight.

It's an absence, both from his job in Congress and his campaign, that's starting to test patience in his Chicago hometown.

More than three months have passed since Jackson disappeared, initially a mystery that was later revealed to be a hospitalization for severe depression and gastrointestinal problems. There have been few updates on his condition and no hard answers to questions about his future.

All that aides will say is that Jackson's name is still on the ballot, even though he's yet to make a campaign appearance since last spring's primary. His wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, has tried to say nothing at all. When pressed, she insists she won't step in to take his place.

"You ask anyone in this district, which one of them could take 90 days off of work?" said Jackson opponent Brian Woodworth, a college professor and Republican running what remains a longshot campaign in a mostly South Side district that is heavily Democratic.

"Voters should be paying attention to this," Woodworth said. "For the last three months, almost four, he's ignored them. He's hidden from the press. He's ignored the people. He's neglected his job."

The criticism isn't only coming from the GOP. Editorial writers who urged patience weeks ago now are urging Jackson to explain his intentions. In his district, constituents who have expressed a range of reactions to his absence are growing more anxious to hear from him.

Jacques Whatley, a 39-year-old mother, said she's voted for Jackson in the past but her views have turned as weeks have gone by without any word from the congressman.

"When there are situations like this, we need to know," Whatley said. "If he has some medical issues, then he should step down. If you're in a situation where you're not healthy, then you need time off."

Jackson is recovering at the same time as Sen. Mark Kirk, who suffered a stroke earlier this year. Kirk has also not appeared in public, but the Republican is not up for re-election and has released a series of videos that show him slowly learning to walk again and talking about government issues, at times in a halting voice.

The 47-year-old Jackson returned to his Washington home this month after leaving the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He started a medical leave June 10, but his staff only announced it publicly two weeks later and didn't initially reveal where he was or the illness from which he was suffering.

The son of a civil rights icon, Jackson was expected to breeze to re-election after easily defeating a primary opponent in a district that now extends from south Chicago into portions of two rural counties. In recent days, when asked about the general election, Jackson's office has only said that he remains on the ballot.

"He's still at home under a doctor's care," said spokesman Frank Watkins.

Publicly, most Illinois Democrats have kept quiet about Jackson's situation. Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Luis Gutierrez were among those who pushed Jackson to disclose his condition promptly. The influential Jackson family has long and complicated ties in the party, and it's unclear whether he is being pressured by party leaders to step aside.

Jackson's father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, has declined to speak in detail. The congressman's wife has mostly dodged reporters at City Council meetings and a recent birthday party and fundraiser.

Among the latest head-scratchers was the Jacksons putting their $2.5 million town house on the market. A Jackson aide said the family hoped the sale would help pay medical bills. The family also maintains a Chicago home, but their two children go to school in Washington and Sandi Jackson commutes to Chicago for city business.

Replacing Jackson on the ballot gets messy this close to Election Day. Ballots with Jackson's name have already been mailed to troops overseas, which means that in a close election, the courts may have to step in to determine if a vote for Jackson would be counted for the replacement or thrown out.

If he were to step down in the next few weeks, the Democratic Party chairmen in the three counties he represents would have eight days to pick a replacement.

If Jackson has in fact decided to leave office, he is perhaps more likely to wait to resign until after winning re-election, leading to a special election that would keep the decision about a successor in the hands of voters.