Ethics decision looms for Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. as racial politics highlight primary challenge

at 12:44 PM ET, 12/01/2011

Congressional map-drawers in states across the country are struggling to maintain majority-black congressional districts as African Americans move out of urban areas. And now, it appears plausible that one of those new districts could be won by a non-black candidate.


Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) is seen during the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington in October. (By Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press)

Former congresswoman Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) is trying to do what few before her have accomplished: win a majority-black district as a non-black candidate. She faces an ethically wounded Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) in a primary in a district that has been stretched from the South Side of Chicago far out into the Cook County suburbs and Will County, which Halvorson represented for one term before losing in 2010.

Only two majority-black districts have been won by a candidate who isn’t black in recent years. One is the Memphis-based district currently held by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.); the other was a New Orleans-based district briefly held by Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.).

Cao, of course, had a little help. Specifically, his African American opponent, then-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), was under indictment. (There were also questions about whether, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the district was actually majority-black anymore.)

Jackson has problems of his own — specifically, allegations of an extramarital affair and an ethics investigation into whether he tried to buy an appointment to the Senate in 2009. The House Ethics Committee will decide by Friday how to proceed with the latter issue, and its course of action could have a major impact on an early primary that is less than four months away.

Those issues appear to have stunted the growth of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s son, a one-time rising star in the Congressional Black Caucus and potential candidate for both Senate and mayor of Chicago. Jackson has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign fund on legal fees, and the once-outspoken congressman has also been significantly less visible in recent months.

The question is whether those problems have done enough damage to push black voters away from him.

He said he’s got work to do.

“There has been damage, but the people of my district know that I have been working on their behalf,” Jackson told The Fix.

Conventional wisdom has it that black voters vote for black candidates almost uniformly. But some say that’s over-simplifying things.

David Bositis, an expert on race and politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a friend of Jackson’s, said black voters are actually more apt to vote for white candidates than the inverse. It’s simply a matter, he said, of white candidates not running in majority-black districts.

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, black voters do tend to be very pragmatic,” Bositis said. “They look to elect somebody who is going to benefit them.”

Still, there have been very few white elected officials in majority-black areas. Aside from the two mentioned above, Rep. Lindy Boggs (D-La.) represented New Orleans for 18 years – the latter half when her district was majority-black. And Bositis also pointed to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) terms as mayor of majority-black Baltimore and the longtime former mayor of heavily black Gary, Ind. – Scott King – as examples.

None of them besides Cao, though, defeated an incumbent to gain their seats. And some of them had help running against multiple black candidates who split the black vote.

Illinois Democratic consultant Dan Johnson said Halvorson is very much an underdog. He said that even though politics in Chicago isn’t as racially polarized as elsewhere — Illinois has accounted for two of three elected black senators in history, for example — it’s going to be tough for Halvorson to win in such a high-profile race.

“It’s not unusual for white candidates to run in majority-black districts, but when it’s the top of the ticket, black voters have demonstrated solidarity when it’s a federal race,” Johnson said.

Jackson’s team has deduced that the primary electorate in his new district will be about 66 percent black, meaning that Halvorson would have to pick off at least one-fourth of black voters on primary day. (Halvorson’s team takes issue with those estimates.)

“My opponent will have to spend a considerable amount of time introducing herself to them,” Jackson said. “And how she introduces herself to them will determine the kind of campaign that she will run and how they feel about her. They know me.”

Halvorson’s team notes that, while the district is mostly Jackson’s territory, she has also represented most of it between her time in the state Senate and Congress — suggesting she is a known quantity there.

“We’re basically back home, and people are thrilled to see us,” Halvorson said.

An independent poll released 10 days ago showed Jackson leading early, 35 percent to 18 percent. His favorable rating was 44 percent, and his unfavorable rating was 22 percent, including 16 percent of African Americans who viewed him negatively. The poll showed Halvorson was unknown to about half of respondents, which could account for her early deficit.

That’s not a terribly strong position for an incumbent, but it’s also not quite panic-button time.

Halvorson said she takes a the poll as evidence of her opportunity.

“To me, that message is that I have nowhere to go but up,” she said. “As people see me and meet me, they’re very receptive.”

Of course, it’s still early. We don’t yet know what will happen with Jackson and the ethics committee, and there could still be other candidates entering the race. (There are rumors that another black candidate might run, which could help Halvorson significantly.)

There’s also the possibility that President Obama will get involved. He has already endorsed Jackson, and Jackson said he expects that the president will “do whatever I ask him to do with regard to our reelection.”

Halvorson, for her part, says she knows of several people who have endorsed Jackson but will be supporting her in the end. But she declined to identify them.

Primary day on March 20 is less than four months away, and this is definitely a primary worth watching, starting with this week’s decision from the ethics committee.

 
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