CHICAGO – Former Illinois legislator Robin Kelly captured the Democratic nomination Tuesday in the race to replace disgraced ex-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., after a truncated campaign season where she got a boost from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super PAC.
The nomination all but assures that Kelly will sail through the April 9 general election and head to Washington, because the Chicago-area district is overwhelmingly Democratic.
From a crowded field, Kelly emerged early as a leader on gun control -- a central issue during the race. Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA, poured more than $2 million into the race by airing anti-gun ads in her favor and against another Democratic front runner, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson.
Kelly, a former state representative from Matteson, a south Chicago suburb, favors an assault weapons ban. Halvorson, who unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in a primary last year, is against such a ban.
Halvorson conceded Tuesday evening, saying the outside money certainly played a roll.
"It shows, unfortunately, you can't go up against that big money. ...That's the problem with super PACs," she told The Associated Press. "There is nothing I could have done differently."
After casting her ballot earlier in the day, in the snowy weather that pelted the region Tuesday, Halvorson had warned that if the ads were successful, Bloomberg would try to "buy seats" across the country.
Another Democratic front runner, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, also took issue with the ads, saying people are "extremely upset" that someone from New York is trying to tell people in Illinois how to vote and predicting that there will be a "backlash."
Guns were a leading issue at candidate forums and email blasts from candidates, even as Jackson's legal saga played out in court and frustrated voters who've seen two other congressmen in the office leave under an ethical or legal cloud.
Jackson resigned in November, after a months-long medical leave for treatment of bipolar disorder and other issues, then pleaded guilty earlier this month to charges that accused him of misspending $750,000 in campaign money on lavish personal items, including a Rolex watch and fur coats.
Jackson's exit created a rare opening in a district where he was first elected in 1995. The primary featured 14 Democrats, including former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds, who held the seat in the 1990s but served prison time after being convicted of fraud and for having sex with an underage campaign volunteer. There were four Republicans on the ballot.
Voters heading to the polls Tuesday indicated that guns, ethics and economic woes were on their minds.
Mary Jo Higgins of south suburban Steger said she voted for Halvorson because the former congresswoman is "the only Democrat who believes in the Second Amendment."
But Country Club Hills minister Rosemary Gage said she voted for former state Rep. Robin Kelly because Kelly is "standing with (President Barack Obama) and trying to get rid of guns."
"It's really bad in Chicago and across the country," Gage said. "Too many children have died."
The issue of ethics was also on the minds of voters, particularly as Jackson's legal saga has been playing out in federal court. David Berchem, a retired painter, said he voted for Halvorson because he believes she would represent all residents of the district and was "as honest a person as you can find."
Beale voted at a school in Chicago, while Kelly voted early.
Beale touted his record as a job creator for the South Side ward he represents in Chicago's City Council. That's the reason Juanita Williams, who went to school with Beale, voted for him Tuesday, saying he helped bring a Wal-Mart to the area. The 47-year-old assistant teacher also said Beale has regularly provided school supplies and Christmas gifts to needy students.
Election officials in the three counties covering the district reported no problems at the polls, even though voters and poll workers had to contend with a blustery mix of snow and sleet. Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation deployed extra resources to keep polls accessible.
Turnout at the polls was low, and election officials said the weather might have kept some voters on the fence at home. The National Weather Service issued a winter weather advisory for much of northern Illinois and streets and sanitation workers deployed extra resources to keep roads to polls clear.