Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the ambitious political heir to a powerful Chicago family whose once promising future collapsed amid federal ethics investigations and a diagnosis of mental illness, resigned Wednesday from the South Side congressional seat he held for 17 years.
Jackson's downfall represents perhaps the last major political casualty in the long-running corruption scandal that sent former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison in March on charges he tried to sell the Senate seat of President Barack Obama.
Jackson's political star was on the rise until allegations surfaced in late 2008 that his supporters offered to raise as much as $6 million for Blagojevich in return for the governor appointing him to the Senate seat vacated by the president-elect. Though Jackson was never charged in that case, a House ethics panel investigation into his actions was ultimately eclipsed by a federal criminal probe based in Washington, D.C., into alleged misuse of campaign dollars.
Jackson's resignation letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was Jackson's first acknowledgment of the ongoing federal corruption investigation.
"I am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators, and accept responsibility for my mistakes, for they are my mistakes and mine alone," Jackson said in the two-page letter. "None of us is immune from our share of shortcomings or human frailties, and I pray that I will be remembered for what I did right."
Jackson's Washington legal team, which recently added former federal prosecutor Dan Webb, a Chicago partner at Winston & Strawn LLP, indicated that while Jackson's political fate has been settled, there's more to come in a court of law.
"We hope to negotiate a fair resolution of the matter but the process could take several months," they said in the statement.
Despite admitting "my share of mistakes," Jackson said his deteriorating health — and treatment for bipolar depression — kept him from serving as a "full-time legislator" and was the reason for his resignation.
Jackson's decision to step down came little more than two weeks after his re-election to another two-year term despite a lack of campaigning. He disappeared from the public eye in June after taking a medical leave from the House for what aides had initially described as exhaustion.
Jackson formed a political tag-team with his wife, Ald. Sandi Jackson, 7th, who over the years has received hundreds of thousands of dollars as a paid political consultant to her husband. Despite her role on the City Council, the couple maintained an upscale home in Washington and sent their children to school there. Sandi Jackson has refused to discuss her husband's political future or the investigation into his campaign spending. She could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Jackson's resignation immediately launched a field of possible successors —to be nominated and elected in special elections early next year — that could involve more than a dozen Democratic contenders, some of them political has-beens and others up-and-comers representing a new generation of leadership.
Under state law, Gov. Pat Quinn has five days to set dates for primary and general elections, which must be held by mid-March.
Some Democrats quickly offered to broker a nominee to avoid several African-American contenders splitting the vote in the heavily Democratic and majority black 2nd Congressional District, which could allow a white candidate to win. The district stretches from the South Side through the suburbs and as far as Kankakee.
Jackson's decision to leave office brought to an end a monthslong, consuming political game over the 47-year-old congressman's ability to serve his constituents.
In the congressman's public absence during the re-election campaign, both his father, civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and Sandi Jackson sought to maintain the family's political power by offering generic statements about his health, thanking voters for their prayers and promising a return to Congress when his health permitted.
Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th, whose far South Side ward is in Jackson's district, said she wasn't surprised Jackson stepped down but was disappointed with him for misleading his constituents.
"He's lost the love and concern of the residents in his district," Austin said. "We gave him the benefit of the doubt because of his sickness, and it didn't have anything to do with that."
Jackson was first elected to Congress in 1995 in a special election to replace former Rep. Mel Reynolds, who was convicted on charges including sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old campaign aide and federal bank fraud.
In Washington, Jackson steadily moved up the ladder in a legislative chamber where seniority is a valued commodity to become Illinois' lone representative on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
At home, he began building a local political organization in the South Side and south suburbs, an operation which successful supplanted the once powerful Shaw brothers, twins Bill and Bob, who held various posts.