He is not your father's Jesse Jackson. U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago Democrat, has never made a habit of seeking media attention. "In 10 years in Congress, I've had probably 15 press conferences," he says. "Dad had 15 yesterday." The 40-year-old Jackson is getting more attention these days, though, as speculation grows that he might launch a bid to unseat Mayor Richard M. Daley, a powerhouse long thought to be untouchable. Jackson has been stepping up criticism of Daley over a scandal involving city workers' collecting payoffs on trucking contracts. Some 28 people have been charged by federal prosecutors and 19 have already pleaded guilty, including nine city workers. Daley has said that he had no knowledge of the wrongdoing, which included bribery and, in some cases, city workers' owning trucking businesses with city-hall contracts, a practice that is illegal. Acknowledging "a pattern of problems," Daley has ordered widespread shake-ups in city departments, including a raft of firings. The mayor, who has been in office for 15 years, has not been accused of any wrongdoing himself. But Jackson says Daley must take responsibility for "fraud and abuse that is running rampant," and said, "The city can do better." Jackson says he has no plans to run for mayor in 2007, but adds, "I haven't foreclosed any possibilities." When Jackson called for an ambitious citywide voter-registration drive recently, there was even more talk of a potential mayoral bid.
Daley, whose father, Richard J. Daley, governed the city for 21 years, has shrugged at the notion of a Jackson bid, telling reporters, "I have challenges all the time." Most political analysts are skeptical that Jackson, in the end, will mount a bid against Daley, who has enjoyed strong support from whites and blacks alike in recent elections. But surprising things happen in Chicago politics. It wasn't long ago, after all, that experts scoffed at the notion that Illinois voters would elect as U.S. senator an obscure politician from the South Side named Barack Obama.
Considering how many white Chicagoans have long detested the elder Jackson, it is remarkable how popular Jesse Jr., as he is known, has become. He has rolled up big margins of support among the 40 percent of white voters in his district, which includes both city and suburban neighborhoods. His top goal is the building of a new airport in south suburban Peotone, a project that would bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in investments to the struggling region. Jackson generally shares his father's liberal political views, but his tone is rarely strident or angry. A graduate of St. Albans prep school in Washington, the younger Jackson acknowledges being a child of privilege. He likes to hunt and fish, sometimes with people from across the political aisle, such as former congressman Dick Armey. He counts conservative Republican Rep. Henry Hyde as one of his closest friends. Jackson says he prefers to discuss issues "through the lens of economics," he says, because "people turn you off if they think you're just talking about race." For his working-class constituents, he says, the color that counts is green. The strategy has worked for him in Washington. His backers hope he will ride it all the way home to a victory in city hall.