Jackson son is running for Congress Jesse Jackson Sr. presses flesh with paternal pride in Junior's first race


EVERGREEN PARK, Ill. -- Shoppers and store clerks at a mall in Evergreen Park ran up to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson the other day asking for his autograph.

The civil rights advocate, two-time presidential candidate and talk show host was glad to oblige. "We need your support," Mr. Jackson told a man who had elbowed his way through a group of people waving pens and paper. "Don't forget to vote for Jesse."

"I promise," the man said, pumping Mr. Jackson's hand. "But you mean Junior, right?"

"That's right," Mr. Jackson replied, a proud-papa smile spreading across his face. "Vote for Jesse Jackson Jr. for Congress."

According to a recent Chicago Tribune poll, Mr. Jackson's oldest son and namesake is leading a field of five Democratic candidates in a special primary election Tuesday.

The election is being held to replace former Rep. Mel Reynolds in Illinois' 2nd Congressional District, a diverse stretch of rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban. Reynolds was convicted in August of having sex with an underage campaign worker.

The general election is scheduled for Dec. 12. While the polls show a large number of voters are still undecided, and a Jackson victory is by no means certain, winning the party primary in the heavily Democratic district that includes a large part of Chicago's South Side and several of its southern suburbs has long been a ticket to Washington.

Stakes high for father

The stakes are high for the elder Mr. Jackson, as a parent and a politician. In some ways, the special election is a referendum on Mr. Jackson, despite his insistence that his son is his own man, running his own campaign, although with fatherly advice.

When Mr. Jackson talks about his son's campaign, his eyes twinkle.

"He inherited my name," he said. "But he's earning a congressional seat."

Mr. Jackson's 30-year-old son, who has never held elected office, has a law degree and a master's degree in theology.

He is the field director for his father's political organization, the Rainbow Coalition, and has been active as a volunteer in Democratic politics.

On the trail, he pushes his own relative youth as one of his major assets, arguing that Congress is ruled by seniority. As he sees it, "We need to send someone to Congress who is young enough, to stay long enough to deliver for all of us."

If he goes to Congress, he will have defeated three much more experienced politicians, largely because of the accident of birth, said Robert Starks, a professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University and a supporter of one of Mr. Jackson's opponents, state Sen. Alice Palmer.

'Impressive young man'

"I'm sure that at least 60 percent of Jesse Junior's poll numbers are related to his name," Mr. Starks said. "However, I think he is a very impressive young man. Still, the fact remains, being as young and as inexperienced as he is, without the name he couldn't get in the door."

The Jackson name has been both boost and burden for the first-time candidate.

Beverly Sanders, 41, a service representative for the telephone company, said she would vote for Jesse Jackson Jr., because "his father has been a role model and a great mentor for him."

But Dorothy Merchant, 46, a payroll officer for a railroad company, said the younger Mr. Jackson was too inexperienced.

"If he was anyone else," she said, "I don't think he'd be running at this point."

Smooth and smart

But there is little doubt that Jesse Jackson Jr. is smooth and smart, speaking in an urbane hip-hop style, mixing "What's up?" one moment with a discourse the next, complete with charts, that links joblessness and the growing "jail-industrial complex."

The core constituency for the candidate are voters in their 20s and 30s. The younger Mr. Jackson has also spent considerable time courting voters in schools and colleges, registering several thousand voters along the way.

Vernon Jarrett, a former Chicago newspaper columnist and longtime civil rights advocate, said, "Jesse Junior is playing the youth card that says, give young blacks a chance."

"You hear so much about young failures these days," Mr. Jarrett said. "A lot of people are in the mood for elevating young black men."

Mr. Jackson has a response for those who say he lacks experience.

"They don't know Jesse Jackson Jr.," he said in an interview. "I've been a member of the National Democratic Committee for seven years. I've worked numerous congressional campaigns around the country, and I've shaken the hand of every president since Jimmy Carter."

Experience through osmosis?

Whether experience through osmosis will satisfy the voters remains to be seen.

Up to now, the elder Mr. Jackson has kept a low profile in his son's bid for office, content to work the telephones behind the scenes and to raise money and support across the country. The visit to the shopping mall last Saturday was a rare joint campaign appearance.

"I don't want people making me the issue," the elder Mr. Jackson explained. "And you can only learn to fly if you use your own wings."

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