CHICAGO | While Democrat Robin Kelly is widely expected to capture Tuesday's special election for former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s seat over Republican Paul McKinley, any winner will face big challenges.
Illinois' newest member of Congress will have big shoes to fill: Jackson was a 17-year incumbent who served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and brought home nearly $1 billion to the district. He also had strong relationships with mayors, activists and voters across the district that includes city neighborhoods, suburbs and some rural areas.
Jackson resigned in November. He pleaded guilty in February in federal court to lavishly misspending $750,000 in campaign funds.
Political experts, voters and mayors agree that Kelly, 56, has the edge. She's a former state representative, has received big name endorsements including from President Barack Obama and received a huge boost from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super PAC, which supported her gun control stance. Also, the district is solidly Democratic and has been for about six decades. McKinley is an ex-con-turned-community activist who barely won his primary.
Early estimates showed low voter turnout in parts of the district, especially the city. Tuesday's special election coincided with municipal contests in other parts of the state; Chicago held its municipal contests in 2011.
Only 8 percent of city voters showed up at the polls, according to early estimates, with an expected turnout of roughly 12 percent by day's end. In the suburbs, the number was higher.
At New Life Celebration Church of God in suburban Dolton, voters trickled in throughout the day and campaign workers handed out glossy candidate cards.
Carl Rochelle, 51, voted for Kelly. He liked her attention to anti-violence efforts and guns. He was also happy to see a new candidate after ethical and legal troubles surrounded the district's previous three congressmen.
"I like to see a fresh face," he said. "Hopefully something is different. I hope it doesn't happen to her."
Kelly, from Matteson, said the next U.S. representative will face challenges, like being the last to get committee assignments and having to play catch up. But she believes she can be a voice on the national stage for gun control. Her primary victory speech, in which she issued a direct challenge to the National Rifle Association, earned praise from Bloomberg and Vice President Joe Biden. And Obama nodded to her anti-gun advocacy in his endorsement.
"I will have a voice in Congress as the debate is going on and as issues come to the floor," Kelly said. "I will attend everything I can attend."
But McKinley isn't so sure it's in the bag for Kelly. The Chicago man — who doesn't advocate for gun control — has focused his campaign on how his integration back into society after serving nearly 20 years in prison for robbery and other charges has made him ready to help others.
"I have a 50-50 chance like my opponent has," he said. "There is nothing written in stone that she's supposed to win."
Independent candidates Curtiss Llong Bey, Marcus Lewis and Elizabeth Pahlke are also running, as is Green Party candidate LeAllen M. Jones.
Whoever wins will face extra scrutiny on ethics.
The three previous congressmen in the Chicago-area district left office under an ethical cloud.
Until his resignation, Jackson remained under a House Ethics Committee investigation over ties to ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. His predecessor, Mel Reynolds, left office in 1995 and was convicted of fraud and having sex with a minor. Before that, Gus Savage faced allegations of sexual misconduct with a Peace Corps worker while on a congressional visit overseas.
"There's a lot of hope (among voters) because she's had a pretty clean record so far," said Don Rose, a longtime political consultant in Chicago. "It'll be a while before she can become a leader but it's a matter of what she does."
Others are just skeptical of any new congressman's ability in Washington.
Many parts of the district face unemployment, including suburban Dolton which reports a nearly 13 percent unemployed rate, much higher than the state and national averages.
Voter Robert Pierson, 56, has lived in suburban Dolton for nearly three decades. He also voted for Kelly and said he hopes she focuses on unemployment. He manages a steel service center and said the area needs a loud voice in Congress.
"It would be nice to be able to lean on Robin," he said.
The district's last special election was 1995 when Jackson won office.