Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. in the Background of Obama's Spotlight

The weather in Chicago this morning is perfect. As the city looks to set a record for the warmest day on record in the month of November, that story will wind up being the least important one that emerges from Chicago by the end of the day, regardless of the outcome of today’s historic election.

U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., knows it. As I made my way along Grant Park and Michigan Avenue this morning to set up for one of the biggest stories to come to Chicago in decades, Congressman Jackson was pressing the flesh with voters, shaking hands with every person he passed. Along Roosevelt Road at the south end of the park, both vehicle and pedestrian traffic came to a standstill as the congressional candidate and close Barack Obama supporter took advantage of the warm weather to encourage people to get out and vote.

I tried several times to see if I could get him to stop long enough to talk to Voice of America about today’s historic overtones, but in the end, Congressman Jackson knows the importance of connecting with voters, and in this instance, the media took a back seat.

But I was able to spend some time observing the Congressman in action. Along Roosevelt Road, he ran up to a parked transit bus to talk to the morning commuters. It looked as if it took the bus driver by surprise.

“Make sure you come talk to the driver now,” he yelled on the intercom as Jackson made his way through the bus shaking hands, camera crew in tow. “I want to be a part of history!”

High atop a high rise under construction across Roosevelt Road, workers in hard hats at the top of the structure yelled out to the Congressman below: “Go Obama!”

In the adjacent high rise, an elderly couple sitting on their balcony echoed their support for Obama. “Make sure you get out and vote!” Jackson pleaded.

A security guard passing by stopped to shake his hand. “Did you already vote?” he asked the congressman.

“Of course I did – I voted last week!” Jackson replied, indicating he took advantage of early voting in the state of Illinois.

While all eyes are on Senator Obama today here in the city, Congressman Jackson is quietly in the background of what could be a historic moment, if polling data that places Obama in the lead translates into actual voting results tonight.

He is the son of Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader who led his own failed bid for the White House in the 1980s. The groundwork for Senator Obama’s run for the White House was established by figures such as Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Now, four decades later, Jackson, Jr., carries the torch of that movement from his father. He is a popular politician who represents the city of Chicago’s South Side, and now serves as the co-chair of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

In recent weeks, Jackson Jr. has been forced to distance himself from his famous father, who made controversial comments about Jewish voters in America, and who made negative remarks about Obama during preparations for a TV interview, at a time when he thought the microphone was turned off.

But it’s not where Congressman Jackson is now, but where he could be in the coming months, that could elevate his political standing in the state of Illinois, and the country, ultimately eclipsing the success and fame of his father.

If Barack Obama is elected president, he would vacate a Senate seat that still has two more years left of an initial six year term. It’s up to the Illinois governor, Rod Blagoyevich, to appoint someone to fill the remaining time left in that term.

Congressman Jackson has made public comments that he would be both “humbled and honored” to serve in the U.S. Senate, but admits it’s ultimately up to Governor Blagoyevich to make the appointment.

Chicago Sun Times reporter Micheal Sneed reported in her (yes her) column on October 17th that her contacts indicated the Senator prefers to have an African American fill the Senate seat in the event he becomes president.

But public statements by Obama on the matter have been hard to come by, mostly because talking about the appointment would mean Obama’s campaign is already assuming he would win.

Which is what most people who are gathering here in Chicago, including Congressman Jackson, hope is the outcome when polls close across the country tonight.

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