CHICAGO – They elected a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar and ended up with a congressman who was convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker. They voted for the son of a famous civil rights leader and got someone who illegally spent campaign funds on everything from furniture to Bruce Lee memorabilia.
Call it Chicago corruption at its worst or simply uncanny coincidence, but residents of Illinois' 2nd Congressional District haven't been represented in Congress in more than three decades by someone who didn't end up in serious ethical or legal trouble. That hangs over them as they go to the polls Tuesday for a special primary to begin picking a replacement for disgraced former U.S. Rep Jesse Jackson Jr.
It began with Gus Savage, who took office in 1981 and was defeated a decade later after allegations of sexual misconduct with a Peace Corps worker while on a congressional visit abroad. Then there was Mel Reynolds, who won office in 1992 and was convicted of fraud and having sex with a minor. This past week, after 17 years in office, Jackson pleaded guilty to spending $750,000 in campaign money on personal expenses.
"They all drank from the same cup," said Charles Hill, an unemployed father of five. The Chicago resident once supported Jackson, but the legal drama has left him so drained he's not even paying attention to the batch of nearly 20 candidates vying for the spot. "It's a sad commentary."
Even by Illinois' corruption standards – where four of the last seven governors were sent to jail – troubles in the district are astonishing. The attempts to explain it – among voters, experts and the most recent candidates vying for the seat – range from a culture of corruption to pure coincidence.
Corruption in Chicago politics dates back to at least 1869, when city commissioners were snagged in a scheme over City Hall paint contracts. More than 1,000 Illinois public officials, most in the Chicago area, have been convicted of corruption since the 1970s, according to Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor. In a study, he ranked Chicago as the No. 1 in corruption among U.S. metropolitan areas.
Jackson's grip on the 2nd District seat – winning each election since 1995 in a landslide – created conditions ripe for wrongdoing, Simpson said. Even so, he's slightly baffled by why more problems seem to exist in this district than in others with similar demographics and longtime congressmen.
"Unfortunately, the 2nd Congressional District seems to be an epicenter for these mistakes by public officials," he said.
The district includes part of Chicago's South Side, south suburbs and some rural areas.
Talk of ethics has been a secondary issue among the candidates after jobs and guns, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's political action committee has poured money into ads criticizing candidates it deems too weak on gun control. The candidates include 14 Democrats and four Republicans. The district is largely Democratic, and the winner of Tuesday's Democratic primary is widely expected to sail through the April 9 election.
The only hint of an ethics scandal has involved former state Rep. Robin Kelly, a front-runner who's been attacked by other candidates over accusations that she misrepresented hours she worked as a top aide to former Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in 2010. The Chicago Tribune obtained a report by the chief investigator in the treasurer's office through an open records request. No action was taken against Kelly because she had already left state government.
Kelly has denied wrongdoing and dismissed the allegations as "political silly season."
As for the region's troubles with ethics?
"I think it's coincidental," she said. "I don't think the district has any whammy over it."
Those who agree with her include Reynolds, who's running for the seat again. He says the corruption issue has been blown out of proportion, and his campaign signs read, "REDEMPTION."
"An aberration is what happened in my life," he said. "It was not a determination of my character."
That hasn't kept the issue from the headlines, especially with Jackson's legal proceedings playing out in federal court. Jackson and his wife, former Alderman Sandi Jackson, both pleaded guilty Wednesday in the scheme.
Another candidate, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, has emphasized the issue, saying it's a time for a clean slate. She unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in last year's primary, even as he was plagued by questions over ties to imprisoned ex.-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and reports of an extramarital affair. Blagojevich was convicted on corruption charges that included trying to sell President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
"People want to close this door to unethical behavior," she said. "We've had enough. This district has been plagued for far too long."
The third front-runner, Anthony Beale, a Chicago alderman whose ward overlaps with the district, said the fact that neither Reynolds nor Jackson held public office before Congress was likely a factor in their ethical problems.
"They were not homegrown to know what the district needs," Beale said.
Savage was defeated by Reynolds after the House Ethics Committee determined he made improper sexual advances to a female volunteer. Then Reynolds was convicted in the sex case and sent to prison. Later, while still behind bars, he was convicted of federal wire and bank fraud charges. President Bill Clinton commuted his sentence in 2001.
The district's history has fueled cynicism among some voters.
Grocery store worker Pnakara Nealy, 32, of Calumet Park, supported Jackson in the past, but now she's disillusioned with politics.
"He's not the only one doing it," she said of Jackson. "He just got caught."