CHICAGO | The race to replace former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. heated up Monday when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle endorsed state Sen. Toi Hutchinson over former state Rep. Robin Kelly, her onetime aide.
It's the most high-profile endorsement so far in the Feb. 26 primary, though it's unclear how the nod from the Chicago Democrat will influence voters in the heavily Democratic district that includes city neighborhoods, south suburbs and rural areas.
Nearly two dozen candidates have filed petitions to run. Other top Democrats include former Congressmen Debbie Halvorson and Mel Reynolds. The special election is April 9.
"There are lots of qualified people in this race, but I felt it was important to make a choice, and Toi Hutchinson will be the strongest candidate," Preckwinkle told The Associated Press before an appearance at a City Club of Chicago event.
Preckwinkle said it was a difficult decision because the candidates are qualified. Hutchinson is well placed to win because her legislative district is within the 2nd Congressional District, Preckwinkle said.
The Hutchinson endorsement is nothing against Kelly, Preckwinkle said. Kelly was Preckwinkle's former chief administrative officer and also worked as a chief of staff for former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
Kelly — who has made gun control one of her top issues — used the endorsement as a chance to question Hutchinson's stance on guns. Hutchinson recently supported an assault weapons ban but has had past support from the National Rifle Association.
The primary has been wide open so far, especially since Democratic Party officials weren't able to agree on a single candidate to slate, a departure from years past that would have given any candidate an edge in fundraising and manpower.
Also, since Jackson had held the seat since 1995 — and was able to bring home roughly $1 billion in federal money for the area in that time — he usually had locked up key endorsements including the area's influential pastors and mayors.
Jackson resigned in November, citing ongoing health problems and acknowledging he's under federal investigation, reportedly for misuse of campaign funds.