CHICAGO | U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. was hit this year with multiple blows that would cripple most political careers: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, legal and ethics investigations and sharp media criticism.
Yet experts say the nine-term Democrat will win the 2nd Congressional District race without campaigning — thanks to sheer name power.
His father is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one the leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, and former presidential candidate. The Jackson name resonates with voters.
“Most people don’t like dynasties, but they vote dynasties all the time,” said John Brehm, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, who specializes in political psychology and public opinion.
Michael Johnson, a 65-year-old retiree from Chicago Heights and a registered Democrat, said the Jackson effect is “like the Kennedys.”
Johnson is among Jackson’s constituents who expressed doubts about the congressman. The House Ethics Committee is investigating claims Jackson may have raised bid money for President Obama's former Senate seat, and a federal probe is investigating claims he used campaign money to decorate his home.
In June, Jackson took medical leave for bipolar disorder, and he has not spoken to the public outside two brief comments he made two days ago to the New York publication, The Daily. He told reporters he is “not well,” and that he sees his doctor twice a day.
Phone messages left Wednesday with Jackson’s Chicago office and his chief of staff, Rick Bryant, went unreturned.
But Brehm said even the damage from Jackson’s unaddressed controversies would not be enough to keep Jackson out of office.
He explained that people believe political family members have similar beliefs. And if voters know the name, they are more comfortable with the candidate. Brehm cited famed psychologist Robert Zajonc’s “mere exposure effect” study, which suggested that the faintest exposure to a person’s name, presence or face would make that person more favorable.
From 1995 to 2010, Jackson won by landslides, with 76 percent to 94 percent of the vote.
Valerie Provine, 51, a postal worker from Homewood, said she voted for Jackson in years past. She said even though the controversies worry her, she is likely to vote for him again because she trusts the Jackson name.
“His father was strong,” she said. “The name is strong and that affects his likeability. But it’s kind of hard for him because his father’s shoes are so big to fill.”
Additionally, despite some voters' frustrations with Jackson, no other candidate seems to have captured the district’s attention. The challengers — Republican Brian Woodworth, a former law professor from Bourbonnais, and Independent Marcus Lewis, a mail handler from Matteson — are barely known.
Emily Tyler, a 65-year-old accountant, hails from Matteson like Lewis, but has never heard of him.
“Really Jackson seems to be the only game in town,” she said. “This would have been a prime opportunity for the Independent or Republican to launch a very aggressive campaign and yet I haven’t heard anything from either of them.”