Among the most hotly contested races in the congressional primary season is between Jesse Jackson, Jr. and former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, both vying for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 2nd District. Jackson, Jr. has served the South Side and south suburbs for nearly two decades, but recently has encountered “distractions,” as Halvorson likes to call them. There’s his alleged involvement in the Blagojevich scandal, among others, but Jackson, Jr. says he has never been afforded the presumption of innocence. Jackson, Jr. says his only distraction is Debbie Halvorson herself. He is far more experienced than his opponent and even has an endorsement from President Barack Obama. But after 17 years serving the 2nd District, what more can he offer?
Chicago Tonight spoke with Jesse Jackson, Jr. to find that out and more. And don’t forget to watch Rep. Jackson, Jr. alongside his opponent, Debbie Halvorson, for a special candidate forum on March 13, 2012, on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Excerpts:
1) What are the main issues in your district?
Jobs, jobs, jobs. I’m in the South Side of Chicago and the south suburbs. There are nearly three people for every one job. It has forced the South Side of Chicago, which is primarily the 2nd District, to be a commuter district. They travel far north and northwest to get to work. We need an economy that extends service-based economy. It needs to extend beyond the Museum of Science and Industry to include the South Side and south suburbs of Chicago.
2) The Peotone Airport has been a plan of yours since taking office, but it hasn’t come to fruition. What’s the deal?
Years ago, when I was elected to Congress, I ran on a single, economic platform to build a new airport. The next Governor, George Ryan, I convinced him to buy land for that airport. I then convinced his successor, Gov. Blagojevich, to continue buying that land. I’ve also convinced Gov. Quinn to buy the land. I then convened municipalities called the Abraham Lincoln National Airport Commission, which then issued a request for a proposal and 17 world-class developers responded to that. After a careful vetting process, we have private developers willing to invest $700 million in this project. All that’s required is Gov. Quinn to sign a lease to those 21 municipalities. I’ve done all that without help from anybody, and it’s taken 17 years to get to this point.
3) Do you think the Mayor will make an endorsement in this race?
I don’t know, it’s up to Mayor Emanuel to make an endorsement. I hope he does. When I spoke to him, he made it clear, his support to me. I hope he will make an endorsement with the basis of my record. And when you put it side-by-side to my opponent, her two years in Congress don’t compare to my 17 years.
4) Do you have an official endorsement from President Obama?
Yes, I do. It’s obviously very important to me. We are in a struggle in Washington D.C. fighting for the priorities that sent Barack Obama to Washington in the first place. And what we inherited at the beginning of his presidency was potential economic collapse that could have caused tens of millions of dollars of Americans their jobs and qualities of life. Now we are working together to finish the job we began: to put Americans to work to provide reasonable assurance that America is a strong nation, and that our union is strong and we can keep it together.
5) Debbie Halvorson says you have too many distractions to be in Congress? What do you say to that?
The most distracting thing I’ve had in the last three months has been Debbie Halvorson. And I plan with every fiber of my being by March 20th to be finished with this distraction. And we are focused on the job we are elected to do for the people. We have secured nearly a billion dollars over the last 17 years as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. And we are planning on putting tens of thousands of our constituents to work. There’s a multiplying effect of an airport. When you build an airport, there will be hotels, limousines and convention centers. Everything we experienced in the northwest suburbs as a result of O’Hare, and in Cicero as a result of Midway, is exactly what the South Side and south suburbs will experience. For most of my term in Congress for the past 17 years, I’ve articulated the need to build the airport because the South Side and south suburbs deserve a service-based economy. That’s why they can’t catch a cab in their home, but can catch a cab downtown because cabs stay at service-based economies. So here we are, waiting for Gov. Quinn to make a decision and lease the land. It would mean jobs on day one. It would create 15,000 permanent jobs. It is a 50-year constructive job and would contribute 350,000 jobs to local economy.
6) And these distractions [Halvorson] refers to include the ethics committee investigation stemming from the Blagojevich scandal?
I’ve told the truth since day one. Not a shred of evidence. I believe the U.S. investigation is over. I was never charged or brought before a grand jury. I was never a target. I was called to testify by the defense. Mr. Blagojevich knows he offered me nothing and vice versa, and the prosecution did not contradict me and they had the chance to on the stand under oath. It didn’t happen. No one questioned my credibility, and they had the opportunity to. I have told the truth and I am confident that I will be vindicated. Usually there’s a charge of being innocent until proven guilty. That presumption has never been afforded to me, neither by my opponent or the media.
7) How does it make you feel that, as you said, you’ve never been afforded the opportunity?
I don’t have time to think about that; I’m too busy trying to build an airport. I’ll come back to it, maybe in a book I’ll write in a later chapter of my life. I will add this. I’m in a position where I can actually fight for my name. I can only imagine people who have never been afforded the assumption of innocence, and I have a brand new respect for someone who said they never did something, and they ought to be believed. There are a lot of innocent people in our system. I’m convinced of that.
8) You’ve served in Congress for 17 years now. Do you think there should be a limit to the amount of time one can serve?
No, I’m against term limits. What I do believe is that House terms should be extended longer than two years because it develops with time. It took me nearly a decade to be on the House Appropriations Committee to get the money to fix things on the South Side. Now that I’m on finally on the committee to do something, someone might argue you’ve been in Congress forever. It’s not my goal to be in Congress forever, but I do want to finish my goal.
9) What is your goal?
I want to finish this airport. The unprecedented economic activity for my constituents will be a gift that will keep on giving long after I am not living.
10) It has been said the Debbie Halvorson is the first threat to your seat you’ve faced since gaining election?
It’s not my seat. It belongs to the people of the 2nd District. They get the opportunity to decide where it wants to go. I can live with the outcome. I want everyone to live with the outcome, whatever it is.
11) Pastor Willie James Campbell said that “every obstacle and every yoke” on your re-election bid “has been prepared by Satanic forces.” He later clarified his comments and said that’s what Halvorson’s agenda represents. What’s your reaction?
I am concerned about a Republican Super PAC engaging in a Democratic primary. I am concerned about the 88 votes my opponent has cast against our President, Barack Obama. I am concerned that she desires to be a conservative Democrat and a quasi-Republican. I am concerned that she is supported by the National Rifle Association in a congressional district that has more of its fair share of gun violence. So Pastor Willie James Campbell speaks for himself. I speak for me.
12) What do you think Halvorson’s agenda is?
I don’t know what her agenda is. I haven’t heard her articulate it. I have not heard articulate jobs plans and have not heard her articulate anything she would do in the South Side or 2nd District. I have not seen what she has does for communities in Kankakee and Will County. I am opposed to building a detention center in Crete for immigrants, through no fault of their own but through economic desires, who ended up in our country. I do not believe building prisons is a way to put people to work.
13) What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
The progressive fighter.
This interview has been condensed and edited.