CHICAGO – Democrat Robin Kelly should have little trouble winning the special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. – the district’s been held by a Democrat since the early 1950s, and she sailed through the primary with outside help from one of the country’s most influential mayors.
If today’s contest goes as predicted, Illinois’ newest congresswoman will have big shoes to fill: Jackson was a 17-year incumbent who served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and brought home almost $1 billion to the district. And the help she received in the primary from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC, which pushes for gun control, means big expectations on a national scale.
Even the former state representative’s supporters agree it’ll be a challenge for her.
Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin, who also backed Jackson, said he’s frustrated with Washington’s partisan politics and with the monthslong absence of a congressman in the Chicago-area district that has large pockets of unemployment and poverty.
“He had some influence,” Griffin said. “When a freshman person goes in dealing with guys who are well-grounded and unwilling to negotiate, nothing’s going to transfer. The fact is that she is almost facing an insurmountable task.”
Kelly will face Republican Paul McKinley, 54. The ex-con-turned community activist believes he has a “50-50” chance despite predictions from political experts and the district demographics.
Kelly, 56, won February’s special primary in which gun control became the dominant issue, in part because Bloomberg’s PAC spent more than $2 million on ads praising Kelly’s support for an assault weapons ban and targeting opponent former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson. Her opponent, McKinley, won the GOP primary by less than two dozen votes in the largely urban and suburban district with GOP smidges in rural areas.
As the candidates hit the campaign trial, Jackson’s legal troubles played out simultaneously. He pleaded guilty in February in federal court to lavishly misspending $750,000 in campaign funds.
Kelly’s primary win all but assured she’d head to Washington, but that’s when the pressure intensifies. The Matteson resident acknowledges she’ll be last to get committee assignments and will have to play catch up.
But she said she’s already a part of the national debate on guns. Her primary victory speech, where she issued a direct challenge to the National Rifle Association, earned praise from Bloomberg and Vice President Joe Biden. And President Barack Obama endorsed her earlier this month, nodding toward her anti-gun advocacy.
“I will have a voice in Congress as the debate is going on and as issues come to the floor,” Kelly said. “I will attend everything I can attend.”
Several of Illinois’ new congressional members say they’re already frustrated with the pace of Washington, and Democratic U.S. Reps. Tammy Duckworth and Brad Schneider said staying focused on a singular issue could be tricky.
Schneider, a Deerfield businessman, described his first few months as a “vertical learning curve” where he had to grasp topics with which he had zero any familiarity.
Duckworth — who ousted one-term tea party Rep. Joe Walsh in Chicago’s suburbs, and was already familiar with Washington bureaucracy having served as a former assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs — said small things were difficult. When she wanted to set up constituent offices, she had to wait for technicians from Washington to come to the district.
Duckworth, who lives in Hoffman Estates, added that the pace of being in Congress is “surprisingly hectic.”
Tuesday’s winner also faces a challenge unique to the district — additional scrutiny on ethics.
The three previous congressmen left office under an ethical cloud. Until his resignation, Jackson remained under a House Ethics Committee investigation over ties to ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. His predecessor, Mel Reynolds, left office in 1995 and was convicted of fraud and having sex with a minor. Before that, Gus Savage faced allegations of sexual misconduct with a Peace Corps worker while on a congressional visit overseas.
“There’s a lot of hope (among voters) because she’s had a pretty clean record so far,” said Don Rose, a longtime political consultant in Chicago. “It’ll be a while before she can become a leader but it’s a matter of what she does.”
Kelly isn’t a stranger to parts of the district — her former legislative territory covered parts of the 2nd District — but she did have to reach out during the primary to new mayors and pastors, many of whom had strong relationships with Jackson. Among his pet projects was a third Chicago airport and he’d gained momentum on the proposal, which Kelly supports.
Griffin, who believes another airport would boost the area’s economy and jobs, doubts it will ever come to fruition.
“I was kind of hopeful with the third airport would transpire, but it just hasn’t happened. Now I’m less optimistic,” he said.
Some of his mayoral colleagues, though, had hope for new leadership.
South Holland Village President Don De Graff, who supports Kelly, said he liked that she had Obama’s backing and support from longtime congressmen with urban districts, including U.S. Reps. Bobby Rush and Danny Davis.
“We anticipate that all of those key relationships will be beneficial,” he said.
Still, at least one person believes it’s not in the bag for Kelly.
McKinley, who gained some notoriety for challenging Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral candidacy in 2010 over residency claims, said he’s the ideal candidate. The Chicago man — who doesn’t advocate for gun control — has focused his campaign on how his integration back into society after serving nearly 20 years in prison for robbery and other charges has made him ready to help others.
“I’m an ex-offender trying to prevent a next offender,” he said.
Contact Sophia Tareen at https://www.twitter.com/sophiatareen.