On Friday, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. is scheduled to explain to federal prosecutors his efforts to win President-elect Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. Jackson, 43, is among the most high-profile characters swept up so far in this week's scandal involving Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and charges that he tried to sell Obama's place in the U.S. Senate, which the governor has the right to fill by appointment. A Senate seat would have been a perfect way for Jackson to further distinguish himself from his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 67, who ran for the Democratic nomination for President in the 1980s. Congressman Jackson, however, is now fighting to make sure that his political ambitions, if not his career, survive this tangle with controversy and alleged corruption. A day after the Blagojevich scandal broke, Jackson's attorney admitted that the Congressman was the "Candidate 5" described in the 76-page federal complaint. According to court papers, Blagojevich believed that associates of Candidate 5 had offered to raise as much as $1 million in campaign funds for the governor in exchange for Obama's seat.
There's no doubt that Jackson's family name accelerated his political ascent. Among his first jobs after graduating from college was a position at his father's National Rainbow Coalition, where he managed voter registration efforts. He chose Chicago as the place to build his career because of the strength of Jesse Sr.'s support there. Nevertheless, the younger man has emphasized and established his own bona fides in politics and in activism in the African-American community. In the 1980s, he loudly opposed South Africa's apartheid regime, spending his 21st birthday in a Washington jail cell after participating in protests outside South Africa's embassy in that city. By 1995, he was ready for his first major step in national politics. He was immediately successful. He won his first bid for a congressional seat and became the Representative of the largely black Second Congressional District of Illinois, which includes parts of Chicago's South Side. He quickly began forming alliances with a range of Chicago and Illinois pols. When it became clear that Obama would seek a U.S. Senate seat in 2004, Jackson was among the Illinois state senator's most vigorous supporters. Jackson's support of many local candidates for city office may have reflected his plans to lay the groundwork for a potential challenge to Richard Daley, the city's mayor for nearly three decades. But after Obama was elected President, a U.S. Senate seat was suddenly available. (See TIME's top 10 scandals of 2008.)
In a TIME interview on the eve of the Nov. 4 election, Jackson, who had served as a national co-chair of Obama's presidential campaign, said he was not lobbying for Obama's seat. "My focus during these final hours has been on electing Obama President. If he wins," Jackson added, "I'd be honored and humbled to succeed him in the U.S. Senate." Then, he said, "I'm confident the governor will make a decision in the best interest of the state and country." But shortly after Obama's election, Jackson mounted a vigorous public campaign for the seat. On the morning of the day before his arrest, Blagojevich held a quickly arranged press conference outside a shuttered Chicago plant and described Jackson as a "very strong candidate" to replace Obama. Later that day, Blagojevich and Jackson met for nearly 90 minutes at the state's office building in downtown Chicago.
Shortly before dawn on Tuesday, Blagojevich was roused from bed by FBI agents and arrested on corruption charges. Jackson quickly posted a statement on his congressional website expressing outrage at the charges. On Wednesday, Jackson held a press conference in Washington, and appeared strained as he insisted that Dec. 8 was the first time he had met with Blagojevich in nearly four years. "I did not know the process has been corrupted. I did not know that credentials and qualifications and a record of service meant nothing," he said. He also asserted that he did not bribe the governor or ask anyone to do so.
Still, many observers say Jackson's public explanation was evasive, allowing him to not contradict the federal complaint and still leave open the possibility that an associate of his may have independently approached Blagojevich about essentially paying for Jackson's appointment. "I wouldn't put it past someone to be purporting to represent Jesse without authority," Jackson's lawyer James Montgomery Jr. told the Chicago Tribune. Another explanation that could exonerate Jackson: Blagojevich may have invoked Jackson's name as a speculative attempt to solicit payment. That scenario is what Jesse Jackson Sr. believes, telling ABC News that his son was "being tainted by the governor's speculation about his fundraising activities." Jackson Sr. also denied to ABC News that he was the emissary to Blagojevich on his son's behalf, as described in the court documents.
Before the Obama campaign and the Blagojevich scandal, the biggest controversy Jackson had to deal with involved his sudden weight loss; after persistent press reports and questions, he admitted that he had undergone stomach stapling to lose more than 50 lb. His most serious challenge, however, has been to establish a political identity for himself separate from his famous father. Earlier this year, he publicly criticized his father after the elder Jackson made a crude comment about Obama that was caught by a TV camera. Even during Wednesday's press conference, the younger Jackson tried to distinguish himself from his father, saying it was Obama who inspired him. "I got the idea that if a skinny kid with a funny name could be President of the United States, then a short kid with a somewhat controversial but certainly a high-profile name could be a Senator from Illinois." Jackson said he hoped voters would "measure me based upon the content of my character," he said. (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)
If the Congressman survives the current political whirlwind and a bigger if should he become the Senate appointee, he will have to fight hard, and fast, to establish himself as an effective legislator. After 13 years in Congress, Jackson has had only one real signature issue: building a new airport on the far edges of Chicago's southern suburbs. It has hardly been a success. While the proposal appeases many of his constituents in suburban Cook County, who view a new airport as a potential economic catalyst for the city, residents of the largely agricultural communities that lie outside his district, where the airport would be built, oppose the idea. "It's like a tornado coming no one wants it coming to our community," says Bob Barber, administrator of the town of Beecher (pop. less than 2,500), about an hour's drive south of Chicago. The identities of Jackson's chief opponent and ally on the project are interesting: Mayor Daley is against it; Blagojevich backs it.