CHICAGO — They elected a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar and ended up with a congressman who was convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker. They voted for the son of a famous civil rights leader and got someone who illegally spent campaign funds on furniture and Bruce Lee memorabilia.
Call it Chicago corruption at its worst or simply uncanny coincidence, but residents of Illinois' 2nd Congressional District haven't been represented in Congress in more than three decades by someone who didn't end up in serious ethical or legal trouble. That hangs over them as they go to the polls Tuesday for a special primary to begin picking a replacement for disgraced former U.S. Rep Jesse Jackson Jr.
It began with Gus Savage, who took office in 1981 and was defeated a decade later after allegations of sexual misconduct with a Peace Corps worker while on a congressional visit abroad. Then there was Mel Reynolds, who won office in 1992 and was convicted of fraud and having sex with a minor. Last week, after 17 years in office, Jackson pleaded guilty to spending $750,000 in campaign money on personal expenses.
"They all drank from the same cup," said Charles Hill, an unemployed father of five. The Chicago resident once supported Jackson, but the legal drama has left him so drained he's not even paying attention to the batch of nearly 20 candidates vying for the spot. "It's a sad commentary."
Even by Illinois' corruption standards — where four of the last seven governors were sent to jail — troubles in the district are astonishing. The attempts to explain it — among voters, experts and the most recent candidates vying for the seat — range from a culture of corruption to pure coincidence.
Corruption in Chicago politics dates back to at least 1869, when city commissioners were snagged in a scheme over City Hall paint contracts. More than 1,000 Illinois public officials, most in the Chicago area, have been convicted of corruption since the 1970s, according to Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor. In a study, he ranked Chicago as the No. 1 in corruption among U.S. metropolitan areas.
Jackson's grip on the 2nd District seat — winning each election since 1995 in a landslide — created conditions ripe for wrongdoing, Simpson said. Even so, he's slightly baffled by why more problems seem to exist in this district than in others with similar demographics and longtime congressmen.
"Unfortunately, the 2nd Congressional District seems to be an epicenter for these mistakes by public officials," he said.