Former IL Rep. Mel Reynolds seeks 'redemption' by running for Congress again
Disgraced former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds said he will ask voters to focus on his congressional experience rather than his state and federal criminal record as he announced his bid today for the seat held by Jesse Jackson Jr., who has resigned.
At a downtown hotel news conference, Reynolds acknowledged having made "mistakes" in the past. For his campaign, he will try to assume the mantle of an incumbent while also seeking redemption from voters. Red and white campaign signs urged voters to "re-elect" Reynolds "so he can finish the work" while another stark red sign with white letters said simply: "Redemption."
Redemption? How about restitution to Illinois taxpayers for two unnecessary special elections and remorse for inflicting an ongoing political soap opera on the residents of the benighted Second District? This seat seems to bring out the worst in Democrats, both in terms of the morality of the incumbents and prediliction of the party bosses in Springfield to gerrymander the boundaries it to suit their current needs. This time they may have been too clever for their own good.
Here is the back story. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Congressman Gus Savage was embarrassing Illinois Democrats with his remarks about whites and Jews, as well as accusations of sexual harassment. Savage had faced primary challenges in 1988 and 1990 from an articulate Rhodes Scholar turned professor of political science named Mel Reynolds. When the map was redrawn after the 1992 census the Democrat power brokers decided to minimize any potential damage to the party by cutting off some of the city precincts and extending Savage's district into the South suburbs, a move that was likely to cause Savage to lose the next primary. Sure enough, in the March 1992 primary Reynolds, the favorite of the white liberals, finally bested Savage.
Democrats were so pleased with the articulate, clean cut Reynolds the freshman Congressman was given a prized seat of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Unfortunately while Reynolds didn't spout racist nonsense he quickly exposed himself as both a moral reprobate and a thoroughly corrupt politician. In August 1994, Reynolds was indicted on charges involving a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer. Reynolds, who ran unapposed in November,1994, refused to resign. He was convicted on 12 counts related to having sex with a minor in August, 1995. He finally resigned his seat on October 1. While in prison a whole new set of charges for corruption emerged. In 1997 Reynolds was convicted on 15 counts of bank fraud and lying to the SEC.
Jesse Jackson, Jr. won a special election to complete Reynolds term in December, 1995. While most long time observers of Illinois politics are not surprised by the recent corruption charges, by many accounts Jackson wasn't a bad Congressman. He spent far less time spouting inflamed rhetoric and more time working on economic development matters than his famous father. He was particularly willing to reach across the aisle when it came to a pet project, a possible third airport to be located south of Chicago.
As for the composition of the district, after the 2000 census the Second District lost some of the suburbs added after the 1990 census and became one of the most heavily African American districts in the nation. When Republicans won several Congressional seats in Illinois in 2010 the Democrat party bosses again decided to play games with the shape of the Second District. The boundaries were stretched all the way south past Kankakee to include the residence of Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who chose to relocate rather than face such an uphill battle. These boundaries left Jackson in a district that was still minority majority, but only by the thinnest of margins.
Jackson drew a serious primary challenger last March in former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, the Democrat Kitzinger beat in 2010. I suspect the large suburban/rural portion of the district was one reason Jackson chose not to resign over the summer despite his reported health issues and looming legal battle. On short notice Halvorson might have been a strong favorite among the county chairman and ward/township committeeman who select ballot replacements.
Halvorson has already announced she will run in the upcoming special election on February 26. With perhaps as many as a dozen hats to be tossed in the Democrat ring the racial politics are about to get real interesting. Congressman's Jackson's wife, Sandi, a Chicago Alderman, is said to be interested, as are many other city, county and legislative officials with varying levels of name recognition and community support. In a crowded field of black candidates Halvorson's name recognition in the parts of her old district now inside the Second District could put her on top and Illinois has no provisions for a run off if a certain threshold isn't met.
Because strange things can happen in a special election with a crowded field it is to be hoped a presentable candidate files on the Republican side. This isn't a seat that could be held beyond one term but it is always best to be prepared when the other side seems on the verge of forming a circular firing squad with identity politics being the ammunition of choice.