CHICAGO – Just a few blocks from a courthouse where he was convicted of fraud and a few miles from another where he was convicted of having sex with a minor, former U.S. Rep Mel Reynolds announced Wednesday he is running for the congressional seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr.
The former congressman is just the latest entry in a race that has unleashed a frenzy of ambition, with politicians from every level seeing their once-in-a-lifetime shot at Washington – or a chance at redemption.
Among others considering a run is Sam Adam Jr., a verbose defense attorney best known for representing former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and R&B star R. Kelly. Jackson's brother, Jonathan Jackson, is too.
Former Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, who was beaten by Jackson in the primary last spring, says she intends to run, as does state Sen. Napoleon Harris, a former Northwestern University football who played seven years in the NFL.
Former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, who was sent packing by voters after a tenure marked by corruption allegations, was thinking about making a run. But he opted against it amid reports that about $500,000 had disappeared from his campaign filings. Stroger told a local newspaper it was the result of an accounting error.
Reynolds adds an additional layer of intrigue, startling even by the standards of Chicago – a city with a healthy reputation for corruption and that recently sent a politician back to the Legislature despite being under federal indictment.
The former congressman, who was released from prison in 2001 after President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence, announced his latest political plans Wednesday at a news conference in Chicago.
"People are human, they make mistakes," said Reynolds, who spoke in front of a sign that read: "REDEMPTION."
Jackson, the son of a civil rights icon, resigned last week, citing his ongoing treatment for bipolar disorder. He also confirmed publically for the first time that he is the subject of a federal probe and is cooperating with investigators.
A Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, Reynolds unseated U.S. Rep. Gus Savage in 1992, two years after a House ethics committee determined that during an official trip to Africa Savage had made improper sexual advances to a female Peace Corps volunteer.
Like Jackson after him, Reynolds was a rising star in Democratic politics when he was elected. He was considered the "anti-Savage" candidate.
But then Reynolds was convicted in state court in the sex case and sent to prison in 2005. Later, while still behind bars, he was convicted of fraud for concealing debts to obtain bank loans and diverting money intended for voter registration drives into his election campaign.
Despite that background, Reynolds said he thinks he has a good chance at winning. He characterized his legal problems as "mistakes" rather than crimes and predicted they would be forgiven in a district and city that just elected state Rep. Derrick Smith, even though he has been indicted on federal corruption charges.
"People aren't into closing doors on people," he told reporters. "People can give people an opportunity to go forward in their lives," adding that his own career includes a landslide victory after he was indicted on criminal charges.
Political observers aren't so sure, saying that as forgiving as voters can be they will be hard-pressed to forgive someone convicted of such serious charges.
"This district does not have the luxury of providing redemption," said Laura Washington, a political analyst in Chicago.
The stories of Reynolds and Jackson – who is being investigated for his ties to Blagojevich and reportedly for allegations that he misused campaign funds – highlight the city's often embarrassing political history.
Dick Simpson, a former city alderman and political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found in an analysis that the Chicago region has had more corruption convictions than any other metropolitan region in the country. The re-emergence of politicians like Reynolds only underscores that point, he said.
"That simply tells the nation that, yes, Chicago hasn't changed," Simpson said.