- Associated Press - Monday, November 21, 2011

CHICAGO — Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. faces serious competition for the first time since his House career began, damaged by the last three years of allegations of corruption and embarrassing personal disclosures and made even more vulnerable by Illinois’ new congressional district map.

Mr. Jackson, 46, came to Congress 16 years ago already with designs on higher office. He sought to transcend the more polarizing figure cut by his father, the famous civil rights leader.

But with a House Ethics Committee inquiry hanging over him, Mr. Jackson is now being challenged by former congresswoman and state Senate leader Debbie Halvorson, a fellow Democrat who has tried to draw attention to his “ethical distractions.”

The last three years have been a lost period for Mr. Jackson, normally a loquacious presence in Washington and Chicago. His troubles have been tied to the investigation of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Justice Department had asked the House Ethics Committee to defer its probe, but the committee will now decide by Dec. 2 what it plans to do with charges that Mr. Jackson tried to buy the Senate seat vacated by President Obama’s election.

The committee could take a number of courses, from closing the investigation or calling for a deeper inquiry into whether Mr. Jackson or an emissary offered to raise money for Blagojevich in exchange for a Senate appointment as well as if he improperly used his official staff to campaign for the seat.

Mr. Jackson declined to be interviewed for this story. His chief of staff, Rick Bryant, said the committee’s looming decision is a positive thing.

Congressman Jackson believes in the process, he’s cooperated fully in the investigation, and he is confident he will be vindicated,” Mr. Bryant said.

Whatever course the committee takes, it will mark a turning point for Mr. Jackson, who was first elected at age 30, twice considered runs for mayor of Chicago and openly pined for a U.S. Senate appointment as Mr. Obama was elected in 2008.

“He’s essentially been in hiding … the whole momentum of his role in government and politics has gone away,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who monitors Chicago politics closely as head of the political science department at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “People aren’t generally seeking his endorsement. There are some races where it might be important, but people are nervous about it, whereas before they’d be delighted.”

Ms. Halvorson’s decision to run against him is another sign that Mr. Jackson is no longer feared. A one-term member of Congress who lost her seat in 2010, she represented the new territory in Mr. Jackson district around Kankakee, south of Chicago, about 25 percent of the voting base. She is expected to run a vigorous campaign, though the district is still packed with Jackson loyalists.

“We need a congressman who doesn’t have ethical distractions,” Ms. Halvorson said when she announced her campaign.

Given a viable alternative, some say they’re not sure they’ll vote for Mr. Jackson again.

“No matter what your name is or what family you come from in America, the democratic process is supposed to work and you should not be let off the hook for any reason,” said Brian Mullins, a real estate developer who voted for Mr. Jackson in 2010. He spoke down the street from storefront offices for Mr. Jackson and his wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, which are emblazoned with their pictures.

Aliscia Roberts, a restaurant server, said Ms. Halvorson will have an opportunity to earn her vote.

“It’s who’s going to do the best job,” she said. “I want to know who’s going to be best for my community here.”