CHICAGO — The former congresswoman and one-time Mary Kay saleswoman dashed up to the pulpit of the black megachurch and offered stories of growing up poor and raising two children on her own as she tried to win the congregation's support for her bid to unseat Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Debbie Halvorson, who is white, is giving the son of the iconic civil rights leader his first real competition in a district that has been held by a black congressman for three decades. She believes recent ethics scandals have made him vulnerable, and a new congressional map has added more white and rural voters to his district — along with a large chunk of the area Halvorson represented until she lost to a candidate with strong tea party support in 2010.
Jackson is fighting back by hiring a pricey public relations firm, opening a campaign office outside of Chicago in Kankakee and registering new voters in rural areas. The campaign is shaping up as one of the toughest fights in Illinois' March 20 primary, and it could be the latest test of whether famously segregated Chicago and its surrounding suburbs have moved beyond voting along racial lines.
"We need someone who says it doesn't matter where you grew up, you should have the same equal opportunity to education," Halvorson told the congregation at Sweet Holy Spirit Church of Chicago, where the gospel-singing pastor has endorsed her. "I grew up poor. I know what we need, we need jobs now."
The warehouse-style church — which boasts 9,000 members — erupted in applause.
Last year's mayoral election — in which blacks and Hispanics largely supported Rahm Emanuel despite several minority candidates on the ballot — challenged assumptions about race in politics even though the metro area remains heavily segregated. Halvorson's success largely depends on race not mattering in this election either, although Jackson's famous name, changes to the district and a House ethics investigation into Jackson's ties to prison-bound former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich complicate the equation.
Both campaigns released internal polls in January that put Jackson well ahead. And political experts note that Jackson's family name resonates deeply in the district he has won up until now with more than 80 percent of the vote.
"It's a name that represents more than 40 years of activism in the African American community, particularly in Chicago," said Robert Starks, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University who studies politics and race. "I don't think she can beat him."
Despite changes to the district, it remains largely comprised largely of black neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side, and Halvorson has taken her campaign to his backyard: She's hired an African American community relations consultant, scored the endorsements of several black ministers and speaks at up to five black churches every Sunday.
She also exploits opportunities to mention the House Ethics Committee probe into reports that Jackson was involved in trying to raise money for Blagojevich in exchange for Jackson being appointed to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Jackson has denied the allegations and long maintained that he'll be vindicated.
Still, this is the first time Jackson, 46, has faced a serious Democratic challenger since he was sent to Congress after winning a special election in 1995. He has responded by campaigning harder than ever, making more public appearances and touting a list of high-profile endorsements, including one from state Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago mayoral candidate last year and head pastor at Salem Baptist Church, a 10,000-seat arena that's been a critical destination for aspiring officeholders.
After three years of regularly declining interviews, Jackson's also returning reporters' phone calls.
"The redistricting and the polls show we're still popular," he said in a telephone interview. "I feel very confident. But we never take anyone or anything for granted."
On the campaign trail, Halvorson, 53, greets commuters at suburban Metra stops in the heart of her old state Senate district with a cheery demeanor that makes it easy to envision her as a former cosmetics saleswoman. Even in Chicago, Jackson's stronghold and her greatest challenge, she's made inroads.
Among the pastors who've endorsed her is Bishop Larry Trotter of Sweet Holy Spirit, which has had a strong South Side presence for decades. He has supported Jackson over the years but said the congressman has been hard to reach. He believes Halvorson understands the area's issues and after Obama's election, the race of a candidate isn't as important to voters.
"She's proven to be concerned about things that hurt our people. When I say 'our,' I mean community people that are not in the upper echelon, regular working people and poor people," Trotter said. "She has a heartbeat for building up single mothers."
In her church appearances, Halvorson talks about education, detailing how she earned bachelor's and master's degrees while raising teenagers as a single mom. She has since remarried. She also talks about how her mother raised her and her two brothers on $700 a month and how she often ate mayonnaise sandwiches for lunch.
Jacques Whatley, 38, is a single mother of two who is black and has voted for Jackson in the past. But she said the district could use new leadership and it doesn't matter to her that Halvorson is white.
She said education is most important to her, particularly overcrowded classrooms, and making more affordable housing options for people.
"I could go either way," she said.
Halvorson acknowledges the challenge but says she has faced tough odds before. In 1996, she defeated 18-year Republican state Sen. Aldo DeAngelis of Olympia Fields in a door-to-door campaign and eventually was appointed the first female majority leader of the state Senate.
"The only color that matters is green and that's money. We need someone who is going to bring it back," she said. "I think me being a white woman doesn't matter, they just want someone who's going to deliver."
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen