Former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. agreed Friday to plead guilty to charges of misusing campaign funds, in an apparent bid to an end a federal investigation that threatens to also implicate his wife, former Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson. Both had resigned their offices in recent months, reportedly as part of the congressman’s negotiations with prosecutors.
For the scion of what was once the country’s most influential African-American family, the plea deal represents a precipitous fall from grace that overlaps with the ascent of another African-American Chicago family to the White House. The Jackson dynasty appears to be done.
“There was a time when Jesse Jackson Jr. saw himself as the first African American president and now he’s probably on his way to jail,” says Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association—a Chicago-based good-government group. “This is a major fall from grace—and a family tragedy.”
The son of the Reverend Jesse Jackson—who mounted two competitive campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s—served 17 years in Congress, representing a seat so safe that he easily won reelection last November despite not campaigning due to a highly publicized hospitalization for bipolar disorder and other ailments.
He resigned two weeks after Election Day. His wife, a city alderman, resigned her office in January after the Chicago Sun Times raised questions about her use of campaign funds from her husband’s congressional accounts, including a $5,000 monthly consulting salary, credit-card charges and the moving of money between accounts.
This practice is apparently epidemic in the corruption-plagued Land of Lincoln.
“A lot of politicians use political donations as lifestyle enhancements—getting work done on their homes, taking fancy vacations, etc,” says Shaw. “At the very least they’re bending the rules of campaign finance and sometimes they violate them blatantly. Unfortunately the IRS and state election boards are stretched too thin to investigate. But if you end up under the microscope of the U.S. Attorney that all changes … Jesse Jackson Jr. is not an outlier here, but he’s the one who got caught. There are a lot of politicians who are probably saying ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’”
Jesse Jackson Jr.’s fall is more profound than most Chicago pols because of the arc of history behind it. This is not just the case of one wayward son—the Jackson mantle has been tarnished in recent years due to a steady stream of scandals from the father as well.
One of the great orators of modern American history, a youthful confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Reverend Jesse Jackson “has seen his star dim considerably in the past decade,” says Shaw, pointing to “revelations about a love child and questions about the way he raises money for Operation PUSH. Now this.”
Jackson has been under an ethical cloud since the election in 2008 of Barack Obama as the first black president. In addition to front-page reports of infidelity, the congressman aggressively pressed Gov. Rod Blagojevich to appoint him to the Senate seat that Obama had held, and a House investigation into his dealings with the now-jailed governor had been ongoing. A special election to fill his congressional seat is scheduled for later this month.
There does appear to be a glimmer of a silver lining to Jackson Jr.’s plea deal, where he will reportedly plead guilty to a single felony charge, and it will be left to a judge to decide if receives jail time. “The feds don’t usually prosecute the husband and wife of small children,” says Shaw. Look at the Blagojevichs, for example—so that may be the saving grace for Sandi Jackson.”
Still, the overall environment of shady deals and rules-don’t-apply-to-me hubris have tripped up yet another Illinois pol and his family, this one long regarded as political royalty in his community.
Flying under the radar has never been the Jackson family’s style. But for all the buffoonish corruption of the Rod Blagojevich era, the atmosphere of impunity around Illinois pols should have evaporated long ago. After all, this is a state where four of the last six governors have been sentenced to prison, along with some 30 aldermen in recent years.
Some swamps take a long time to drain. Stunningly, three current members of the Illinois state legislature were sworn in this year despite facing criminal charges, ranging from bribery to bank fraud.
“With so much political corruption in and around Chicago,” says Andy Shaw, “you have to wonder if there’s something corrupting in the water from Lake Michigan.”