Reporters were ambushing the son’s wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, at city council meetings, pressing her about speculation that her husband would drop out of his congressional race and that she would step in to replace him. She showed the strain by calling them “vultures.”
The cryptic and confusing sequence of announcements about Jackson’s health reveals something about the delicate position Jackson finds himself in and about the nature of Jackson’s world, a place with a center of gravity in Chicago, rather than Washington.
Jackson’s staff was preparing to announce his leave of absence on June 18, according to a person familiar with the planning. But the statement had to be cleared by both his father and his wife, and they were moving slowly.
By the time they’d signed off, another crisis hit: Jackson’s friend Raghuveer Nayak was arrested in Chicago and charged with paying kickbacks to doctors in exchange for referrals to his surgery centers. Nayak was linked to the Blagojevich case because he allegedly offered to raise $1 million for the governor if he named Jackson to the Senate seat vacated when Obama was elected president. Nayak had also allegedly paid to fly a woman suspected of having an affair with Jackson to Chicago.
Jackson’s staffers were concerned that a media narrative would develop: He had taken the leave because of distress about the Nayak investigation. So they waited. It wasn’t until June 25 that they announced he had taken a leave because of exhaustion. They averted one media narrative and created another: They had been holding back information.
In fact, Jackson’s staffers knew almost nothing about what was happening, a congressional source said, and they weren’t happy about being placed in that position.
A focus on Chicago
Jackson’s focus has always seemed to be in Chicago, rather than in Washington. He displayed a different persona in each place, former associates say. In Washington, “he never became a player,” a top Democratic aide said. He struck colleagues as erratic. They’d see him late in the evening, walking the hall in martial arts gear, but miss him at meetings. On karaoke night at the Democratic Club, he could wow friends with his deft dance moves, but at other times he would retreat from social contact, according to interviews with several top Democratic aides.
“He’s not a creature of the Hill,” one top aide said. “Jesse came with a lot of fanfare because of his name. That brought a certain level of expectation. I think there’s a sentiment that he’s never lived up to it.”
But if he was perceived as irrelevant in Washington, he had real swagger in Chicago politics. “He fights all his fights on the local level,” said Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat who served with Jackson in the House before losing a reelection bid in 2010. Halvorson was soundly defeated by Jackson in a Democratic congressional primary in March.
“He is very talented and he was building his own machine; he was like the prince on the South Side,” Coconate, the political operative, recalled.
Building a power base
The prince was erecting the foundations of a power base, diving into countless local races by endorsing candidates, seeding the region with mayors and other local officials who would be loyal supporters. But he could be mercurial, former associates say. Jackson sometimes boasted that he was a reincarnated Greek chariot driver, Coconate said. “I really thought he had a problem with reality,” Coconate said. “He’d get in his own little world. He’d come out with outlandish things.” At one of Jackson’s hangouts — a Turkish bath — he’d prance naked, demonstrating martial arts moves, while the others stayed wrapped in towels, said Frank Avila Jr., a former supporter who is a Democratic operative.
Jackson’s language could be shockingly inappropriate, especially for someone who grew up at the epicenter of the modern civil rights movement, former associates say. Coconate, who is of Italian heritage, recalls Jackson calling him “Scungilli Head,” a reference to an Italian seafood dish. Jackson called older African American lawmakers “plantation Negroes” and whites were “lemonheads,” according to Coconate and Avila. Frank Watkins, a spokesman for Jackson’s congressional office said, “I’ve never heard him say anything remotely like that. It sounds completely foreign to me.”
Avila was doubtful about Jackson’s offer to help him in what would eventually be an unsuccessful race for Water Reclamation District commissioner. It was a minor race, he said, but Jackson insisted that he take a $12,000 poll, using Jackson’s pollster. Jackson also required him to use an expensive photographer to snap shots of them together, only to discover that he would merely be digitally added to a stock image of Jackson.