CHICAGO – After months of drama surrounding Jesse Jackson Jr.’s seat in Congress, the race to replace the congressman with the prominent name has pivoted to a different high-profile topic: guns.
Only a short time ago, most of the attention in Illinois’ 2nd District was fixed on Jackson himself, specifically his mysterious leave of absence and a federal investigation, reportedly into misuse of campaign funds.
But December’s school shooting in Connecticut brought renewed attention to Chicago’s own gun violence and refocused one of the nation’s first major elections since the Newtown, Conn., massacre.
With less than two weeks before the special primary, “A’’ grades from the National Rifle Association are being hurled about like the ugliest of insults.
A super PAC backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent $1.27 million on ads warning voters to “watch out” for a leading candidate who opposes an assault weapons ban. And a state senator once considered a front-runner dropped out after being arrested for having a handgun in his bag at O’Hare International Airport.
In a contest involving more than a dozen candidates – all with similar backgrounds and none more than marginally known – guns could be the deciding issue.
The intense focus on gun policy also raises the question of whether this election will offer a sign of what’s to come in post-Newtown politics.
The campaign is unfolding in a district that includes a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas. Nearly half of district voters live on the South Side of Chicago, where some of the nation’s worst gun violence has been heavily concentrated.
Among the victims in that area was 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, who police say was shot and killed as she talked with friends in a park not far from President Barack Obama’s Chicago home. First lady Michelle Obama attended her funeral Saturday.
“The Newtown tragedy touched so many hearts, it raised the prominence of the issue, even in a city that’s seen rampant gun violence. ... And I think Hadiya helped people to see our pain,” said the Rev. Scott Onque of St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. “Those are tragedies that let you know that something has to happen. It makes you think we have to start talking about it a little more.”
Jackson resigned his seat in November, shortly after winning his ninth term despite a monthslong leave of absence.
In his resignation letter, he cited his ongoing treatment for bipolar disorder and acknowledged he is under federal investigation.
Jackson’s departure after 17 years in office left the field wide open. Nearly two dozen people – most Democrats – quickly jumped in. Party officials held a slating session to try to unite behind one candidate for the Feb. 26 primary, but no one came away with enough votes to be the official party favorite.
Though four or five candidates moved to the front of the pack, their positions on most issues mirrored one another, making it difficult for candidates to distinguish themselves.
Then Newtown happened. Within weeks, Chicago closed the year with 506 homicides, and Obama proposed a series of initiatives aimed at stemming gun violence.
A handful of candidates saw an opportunity to draw a distinction.
“As far as genuine issues (where candidates differ) there are few,” said Don Rose, a longtime analyst of Chicago politics. “I don’t think any of them when they first filed for office realized this gun issue was going to take such prominence. This was kind of thrust upon them.”
State Sen. Donne Trotter was among the favorites before his December arrest at O’Hare. Trotter said he had been working the night before as a security guard and had forgotten the gun was in his bag. But he dropped out a month later, saying he didn’t want the charges to become a distraction in the race.
Former state Rep. Robin Kelly and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale began blasting state Sen. Toi Hutchinson and former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson for once receiving “A’’ ratings from the NRA.
Hutchinson has said the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School caused her to re-evaluate her positions and that she now supports Obama’s proposals, including bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Her campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Beale accused Hutchinson, who is from suburban Cook County, of “jumping on the bandwagon.” Kelly, who also is from the Chicago suburbs, called it “backtracking.”
“What about what’s been happening in Chicago the past five years? Or the other Sandy Hooks across the United States?” Kelly said. “The only thing that’s changed is she’s running for office.”
Halvorson, who lost to Jackson in the 2012 primary, is standing by her positions, despite being the target of ads from Bloomberg’s Independence USA super PAC. She supports background checks for gun purchases and registration of all firearms but opposes an assault weapons ban, saying law-abiding gun owners have Second Amendment rights and a ban in Cook County hasn’t prevented gun violence.
It’s a stance that could help Halvorson among voters in the far south end of the district, where she lives. That area is more rural and home to a greater number of white voters, as well as Republicans and others who support gun rights.
Halvorson is white, while Kelly, Hutchinson and Beale – like more than half of the district – are black. If Halvorson wins enough of the vote in the south end of the district and the other three candidates split the vote in Chicago and its south suburbs, it could be enough to give Halvorson the win.
Kelly has been most aggressive on the gun issue, earning her endorsements from U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush and Danny Davis, two Chicago Democrats from neighboring districts. On Tuesday, she was to be Rush’s guest for the State of the Union address.
Kelly launched a TV ad last week touting her anti-gun record, which includes working with Obama on legislation in the Illinois General Assembly a decade ago.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face the Republican primary winner in the April 9 special general election.
If Kelly prevails, Rose said, “I think it will be kind of a signal of what’s ahead in 2014.”