WASHINGTON – As his flamboyant father makes headlines on civil rights and economic equality, the son of Jesse Jackson has quietly made a name for himself as a committed four-term congressman representing the second district of Illinois.
"Jesse Jackson Jr. has been a very diligent and hardworking lawmaker" who has made his own name for himself on the House Appropriations Committee and in the Congressional Black Caucus, said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the caucus. "I would like him to have a very long career in office."
The prospects appear good for now. Campaigns and Elections magazine gives Jackson 10 to 1 odds for re-election in November, and redistricting has barely touched his district. In fact, he actually absorbed more Democratic voters when the district map was redrawn to include a piece of Republican Rep. Jerry Weller's district.
Jackson said he "will run on his record," which includes bringing $190 million in aid to his district. He said he has helped bring fresh running water to Ford Heights and is pushing hard for a third airport in the Peotone area of his district, in order to bring more jobs to the residents of the predominantly black South Side of Chicago.
"We are fighting to balance the economy of the North Side and the South Side of Chicago so that everyone will have the same opportunities to work and benefit from this great country of ours," he said.
Nevertheless, Jackson faces a primary challenge for the first time since he was elected in 1995, and the competition has taken some unusual twists.
One opponent is Yvonne Christian-Williams, a resident of the Dixmoor suburb who has never held elected office. According to observers in the city, politically influential brothers Bill and Robert Shaw run Jackson's chief rival's organization.
Jackson accused Bill and Robert Shaw, a state senator and former alderman, respectively, of placing another primary opponent in the mix, Jesse L. Jackson, who is of no relation to the congressman, in order to confuse and split the vote in the March 19 primary, giving Christian-Williams the edge.
However, just before a state board was to rule on whether the virtually unknown Jackson could use the middle initial "L" on the ballot, he pulled out of the race entirely on Friday, citing family issues. In an interview Thursday, the congressman said he was willing to bring the issue to criminal court if necessary.
"I am Jesse Jackson and he is not. He is his own man," Jackson said. "I welcome Mr. Jackson, but only if he's on the ballot legally."
The Democratic primary scuttlebutt, which has inadvertently created short shrift to another candidate Anthony Williams, is not unusual for South Side politics, said the Republican candidate for the seat.
"This traditionally happens in every election in Chicago, this isn't anything new. But it generally doesn't show up in a high-profile election with a high-profile congressman," said Doug Nelson, a 9th ward Republican committeeman, who is running unopposed in the primary.
"It's just an annoyance, and the Shaws know that. It'll just force (Jackson) to spend extra money," he added.
Nelson, a former manager for the state Occupation Safety and Health Administration, said he knows that the primary dispute will have little effect on the overall race, taking place in a district that voted by 89 percent for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, but he is set on offering an alternative to Jackson.
"I think it's important, particularly for Chicago, which has been notorious for being a one-party town, Democratic. I don't think that's healthy," he said.
Nelson said he thinks his loyalty to the steel industry and libertarian leanings make him a good choice for the district, which is best known for its industrial golden era, when it played host to massive steel mills, once majestic factories, a thriving immigrant population, and a large Midwest labor movement.
Today, most of those industrial buildings are empty, the ethnic neighborhoods are disorganized and the area suffers from urban flight, but Nelson argues revitalization won't be helped by Jackson's inclination toward government assistance.
"I don't have any quarrel with Jackson – he's put some interesting ideas out there and he hasn't necessarily gone along with the party line," Nelson said. "But I disagree with his social policy, because his traditional viewpoint is for big government solutions."