CHICAGO — He never outgrew the diminutives.
As a little boy with an iconic father, he answered to “fella” as he skittered at the feet of civil rights leaders and celebrities. He’s just “Junior” now, even in his mid-40s, a coil of ambition and inscrutability who aspired to be a big thing in politics.
Serving in Congress wasn’t that big thing for Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat from Illinois and son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Being one of 435 didn’t equate to greatness in the son’s mind. Not back home in Chicago, a place with its own sense of hierarchies, a place where he wanted so desperately to impress.
“Junior is a very insecure person. When you’re in Chicago and you come in and say you’re in Congress . . . Congress is nuthin’. But the mayor of Chicago? He is a boss,” says Frank Coconate, a political operative who helped Jackson test the possibility of a mayoral run several years ago before they had a falling out.
No one talks about Jackson occupying the mayor’s office anymore, and the predictions that he might someday run for president — forecasts that accompanied his arrival in Congress 16 years ago — are long forgotten. Instead, Jackson’s promising career has devolved into a blur of self-destruction, mystery and tabloid drama. He’s been caught in an extramarital affair and been pulled into the pay-for-play scandal that toppled Rod Blagojevich as Illinois governor and prompted a House ethics investigation. He’s disappeared without explanation from Congress, only to surface while receiving treatment for depression and, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times and confirmed with law enforcement sources Monday, he is under federal criminal investigation for allegedly misusing campaign funds to decorate his Washington home.
Jackson’s family did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and numerous Jackson allies also declined to be interviewed.
Jackson hasn’t appeared in public since June 8, even though he’s up for reelection next month. On that day, the congressman — who had served as national co-chairman for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — announced a plan to increase the minimum wage and accused the president of failing to live up to a campaign promise to lift the wage. It was classic Jesse Jr. — sharp, articulate and utterly quixotic. Few gave him a chance of passing the bill that he announced with Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and liberal crusader Ralph Nader by his side.
Then Junior was gone.
Scraps of information surfaced — fragments of the story, a drip-drip-drip that frustrated rather than sated. More than two weeks after his final public appearance, Jackson’s staff said he’d gone on leave June 10 because of “exhaustion.” Capitol Hill staffers were growing frustrated because they couldn’t get any information about Jackson. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) urged Jackson to reveal more about what was happening. Two weeks after that first announcement, there was another clipped statement — this time a “mood disorder” was cited — and his staff tried to shoot down an NBC report that he was receiving treatment for alcohol abuse.