December 1, 2012

Son's woes weigh heavily on the Rev. Jesse Jackson

The Associated Press

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In this Jan. 19, 2006 The Rev. Jesse Jackson, left, and his son Jonathan leave Los Angeles Superior Court. At 71, Jackson Sr. still keeps a hectic schedule and speaks extemporaneously on civil rights issues of all kinds. But he struggles when addressing one thing: Jesse Jackson Jr., the son and heir to Jackson’s political influence who abandoned his congressional seat last week because of mental health problems and two federal investigations. Jonathan Jackson, a Chicago State University business professor, is contemplating seeking the congressional seat vacated by Jesse Jr. (AP Photo/Ric Francis, File)

Legal proceedings also revealed that Jackson Jr. had had an extramarital affair, the same type of indiscretion that embarrassed his father almost a decade earlier. Jackson Jr. remained under a House Ethics Committee investigation until his resignation last week and still may face its final report.

Then earlier this year, just after the arrest of a former campaign fundraiser connected to the Blagojevich allegations, Jackson disappeared on a mysterious medical leave, which the family later said was for treatment of bipolar disorder.

While the father won't address the son's legal issues, he said it was difficult to watch his child struggling with the decision to step down, something doctors at treatment facilities in Arizona and Minnesota recommended immediately. He's hopeful his son will recover soon and possibly return to public work.

In Chicago, questions are being asked about what political role the Jacksons will continue to play and whether they will try to influence who wins Jackson's House seat in a special election slated for the spring. Another of the reverend's five adult children, Jonathan Jackson, a Chicago State University business professor, is contemplating seeking the seat. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s wife, Sandi, a Chicago City Council member, has also been mentioned as a potential replacement, though she has remained conspicuously out of sight since her husband's resignation.

No matter who replaces Jackson in Congress, the reverend will almost certainly have to address more questions about his son.

"They're so tied to the hip, and I think that it will paint how people think of Jesse Jackson Sr.," said Holly Campbell, a 49-year-old woman who lives just south of Chicago and has been a longtime supporter of the family.

His presidential runs inspired her to vote. But she's felt something shift in her perception of the family, particularly after the allegations about the former congressman emerged. "I'm disappointed," she said.

The elder Jackson is still busy, but his work often escapes notice. While he's a sometimes-polarizing figure in the U.S., he is greeted in many places, including abroad, as an international statesman. He took credit for helping obtain the release of two Americans imprisoned in Gambia this year, though there was little international news coverage. During a recent protest about job-outsourcing with Illinois workers, Jackson intentionally got himself arrested for civil disobedience. His office supplied constant updates and photographs.

Jackson disputes that there's been any slowdown in his activities. He says he can't keep up with requests for help. Aides say 18-hour days aren't uncommon as he continues almost monthly overseas trips, a regular newspaper column and weekly live broadcasts. He says he's focused on equality and justice, as always, but he approaches things differently now.

Rather than organizing a rally for thousands of people, his work has moved into quieter areas, like the courts, often through his Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which he founded more than 30 years ago.

The Chicago headquarters is a virtual museum of Jackson's life, including photo cutouts of King and Jackson and framed headlines showcasing his work freeing hostages. On a recent weekday, a crowd of people — including church leaders — waited to meet with him.

He spent much of 2012 working on the issue of challenges to voter rights across the country. He also visited a Wisconsin Sikh temple after a fatal shooting. And he returned several times to join the workers' protests in northern Illinois.

Jackson acknowledges the changes in his tactics, news coverage and the wider world.

"The whole landscape has changed," he said. "The rules are different today."

That includes the nation electing and re-electing its first black president, which Jackson has complicated feelings about. He says he has always supported Obama — having voted for him for state senator, U.S. senator and twice for president. But he also takes some credit for Obama's success, saying his own two presidential campaigns made it possible.

During the 2008 campaign, Jackson was caught on tape making crude remarks about Obama supposedly talking down to blacks. He apologized. The night Obama was first elected, Jackson was in the crowd at Grant Park, tears streaming down his face.

Jackson maintains that his family's legacy won't be damaged by his son's problems.

"We've served in this country" for decades, he said. "I don't think people are that fickle."

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