CHICAGO – With Election Day three weeks away, things could hardly be worse for U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.: He hasn't been to work in months as he recovers from hospitalization for depression. There are whispers he's under investigation for misusing campaign donations. Headlines announce he's been spotted at a Washington, D.C., bar, downing drinks.
It would be enough to send most campaigns into full crisis communications mode. Yet the Jackson camp has maintained the same, often baffling approach: virtual silence.
To political observers and strategists, the long stretch of Jackson scarcity is as unusual as it is surprising. Since he quietly went on leave in June, Jackson, 47, has made no statements or appearances to publicly explain his health status or his plans for seeking re-election and maintaining the congressional seat he has held for 17 years.
Even in a district where he is expected to cruise to victory, many are beginning to wonder how much his long absence may be hurting him. Some say any aspirations Jackson had beyond representing Illinois' 2nd district continue to shrink with each passing day. Already, there are signs he's taken a major hit in at least one area that matters greatly to a politician's future career — fundraising.
Delmarie Cobb, a Chicago political consultant and aide to the elder Jackson when he ran for president in 1988, said that with every development and non-response from Jackson, his staff and his family, she has the same reaction: "How is this happening?"
"Because they are who they are in terms of being press savvy, you just can't believe what you're seeing," Cobb said. "It's like watching a train wreck, and it's getting worse every day."
The cloud of mystery around Jackson heightened this week as reports emerged that the congressman — convalescing at his Washington home following a diagnosis of bipolar disorder — faces a new federal investigation into potential misuse of his campaign finances. The Chicago Sun-Times, citing anonymous sources, first reported the probe, which is reportedly separate from a House ethics investigation looking into his connections to imprisoned ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
An FBI spokesman in Washington, Andrew Ames, told The Associated Press he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into Jackson.
Then, internet reports said Jackson was spotted drinking on two separate occasions at a Washington-area bar last week. The next day, the first photos in months of Jackson were published in The Daily and made their way around the web, showing the congressman dressed in jeans, sneakers and an untucked shirt outside of his Washington home. The only comment Jackson made to the publication was that he was "not well" and seeing a doctor twice a day.
Jackson's wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, told reporters earlier this month that her husband is following doctors' orders to "stay very calm and very quiet." She said he would return to work as soon as his physicians said he could do so, and she thanked his constituents for their patience.
At one time, Jackson, son of Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, boasted a promising future as a possible future Chicago mayor or senator. While voters still are expected to re-elect him in November in his solidly Democratic district rooted in south Chicago, his political fortunes have fallen hard since being linked to the Blagojevich corruption saga in 2009.
The House Ethics Committee is separately investigating reports that Jackson and his associates discussed raising money for Blagojevich in exchange for appointing Jackson to President Barack Obama's former senate seat. Blagojevich is now imprisoned on corruption charges, including having tried to sell the seat.
Even members of Jackson's own team appear out of the loop. Frank Watkins, communications director for Jackson's congressional office, has said he only talks to the congressman when Jackson calls him and has rarely spoken to him since Jackson took his leave of absence in mid-June. He said he had no way of reaching Jackson, and referred questions to a consultant who is working on Jackson's campaign. The consultant has not replied to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
Crisis management specialists question the silence tactic, but acknowledge there are other factors at play. Jackson may not have motivation to talk because his re-election seems to be secure, and his lingering legal problems may make any public comment unwise.
Publicist Glenn Selig took the opposite approach when he handled public relations for then-Gov. Blagojevich. Selig urged him to frequently engage with reporters and put him before the camera as often as possible.
Selig called Jackson's approach "baffling." He argued it's also an indication that the congressman and those close to him have utter confidence that he will be re-elected.
Jackson won his Democratic primary this spring after the stiffest competition of his career against a former congresswoman. Since then, he has not appeared at a single campaign stop, but is still widely expected to defeat Republican college professor Brian Woodworth and Independent postal worker Marcus Lewis to win another term.
"It's the posturing of somebody who believes he's untouchable, quite frankly," Selig said. "He doesn't have to worry about it."
Jackson's fundraising numbers, however, seem to reflect his lack of activity, a dip in donor confidence, or both. Between July and September, Jackson raised just $11,280 in campaign donations — an all-time low for any quarter since he first ran for office, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. His campaign committee's cash on hand had dipped to just $113,055 as of the end of September — the lowest it has been since April 1997.
In Jackson's district, voters who have long supported him said they were inclined to do so again until they see solid proof that Jackson has done anything wrong.
Taft Walker, 51, said he wanted to be sure Jackson isn't the subject of a "witch hunt." He didn't fault Jackson for not speaking publicly, saying there may be a logical explanation for what is an otherwise uncharacteristic response.
"Most of the time your attorneys tell you to keep your mouth shut. I think he's following that," Walker said. "But him being a Jackson, I bet that's very hard."
Cobb suggested that patience may be short lived.
"At some point, the good will from the electorate will erode if he continues not to say anything," she said. "The longer he's silent it's going to take on a life of its own."