Political battle to watch this week: gun policy and the primary for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s old Congressional seat

As you’ve probably heard, last year Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. stepped down from his Congressional seat on the south side of Chicago. At the time, Jackson cited mental health concerns as the reason. For most of last year, Jackson was hospitalized for the treatment of bipolar disorder. But it’s also clear that the serious legal charges he’s facing played a major role in his resignation. Last week, Jackson and his wife Sandi, a former Chicago alderperson, pleaded guilty to charges involving the embezzlement of some $750,000 in campaign funds for their personal use. The scale of the theft is astonishing, as is the sheer WTF quality of the things Jackson spent the money on, which included everything from fur coats, flat-screen TVs, and a $43,000 gold-plated Rolex to Michael Jackson and Brandon Lee memorabilia and a pair of elk heads.

It would be a terribly sad denouement for anyone, it’s particularly so for a figure who was once one of the nation’s progressive leading lights. It should be noted that compulsive spending sprees of the type Jackson engaged are a common symptom of the bipolar disorder which he has publicly admitted that he suffers from. In mentioning this, I’m not suggesting we excuse his behavior. Jackson e committed crimes, badly abused the trust of his supporters, and should pay the appropriate legal penalty for his acts. But I also believe that Jackson, like other sufferers of mood disorders, deserves some compassion. He was dealt a biochemical hand that makes him far more susceptible to certain types of self-destructive behavior than are the rest of us. There but for the grace of God . . .

While Jackson focuses on recovering and rebuilding his life, the big question for Chicago political junkies is who will win the upcoming primary to replace him in Congress. Tuesday’s contest is a huge free-for-all, with a total of 17 candidates on the Democratic ballot alone. An additional five candidates are running in the Republican primary, but make no mistake — this is a solidly Democratic seat, and the winner of the Democratic primary will be all but anointed as the district’s next representative in Congress

What makes this race of national interest is that gun control has become its defining issue. Two of the most high-profile candidates in the Democratic primary, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, are supported by the NRA. Last week, Hutchinson dropped out, but Halvorson remains in the race. The presumed frontrunner is former state Rep. Robin Kelly, who supports gun control, as does the third major candidate in the race, Alderman Anthony Beale. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recently formed gun control super PAC, Independence USA, has endorsed Kelly.

Kelly has also racked up the endorsements of the Daily Kos and a slew of local organizations and politicos. Things are looking good for her, but in a race this big and chaotic, anything can happen. It’s a majority nonwhite district, which bodes well for the African-American Kelly and not so well for Halvorson, who is white. But it’s also possible that Kelly could split the vote with an African-American candidate like Beale, which could provide a path to victory for Halvorson.

It would a huge coup for the NRA if they could establish a beachhead with a hand-picked candidate like Halvorson in the heart of south side Chicago. I’ve frequently written about the terrible gun violence problem in Chicago, where gang-related shootings have caused the city to have one of the highest murder rates in the country. Most of the violence is concentrated on the south side, where the open Congressional is located.

In today’s New York Times, Chicago-based journalist Alex Kotlowitz has published a powerful op-ed about the tragic toll of public gun violence. Kotlowitz points out that the devastating effects of gun violence are not limited to those who die of gun wounds. He cites one statistic that is absolutely staggering: according to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, over the past 15 years in Chicago, an estimated 36,000 people have been shot and wounded.

It’s not merely the deaths and serious injuries that have exacted a tragic price, though that kind of suffering is immense. What is less recognized is the insidious toll that gun violence takes on fragile psyches and vulnerable communities. As Kotlowitz notes, the defining feature of Chicago gun violence is that the overwhelming majority of it, including about 80% of the murders, occur in public spaces. For many, there is literally no way to escape it. This kind of violence begets violence; Kotlowitz quotes a recent report which found that “children exposed to community violence might turn to violence themselves as ‘a source of power, prestige, security, or even belongingness.'”

In addition, many people who are constantly exposed to that public gun violence, especially children and young people, develop post-traumatic stress symptoms. Kotlowitz’s piece is studded with examples like these:

[O]ne young man . . . had night terrors so real that his girlfriend feared for her safety. Another young man told me that whenever he passes the spot where he was shot, he thinks he sees himself on the ground writhing in pain, and he approaches the specter to assure himself that he’ll be O.K. Another who was shot and paralyzed in an argument over a pair of sunglasses said that whenever he thinks about revenge or gets angry, which is often, he has incapacitating phantom pains in his legs. Two of the young men I spoke to had attempted suicide. Virtually all spoke of feeling alone, of not trusting anyone. And all admitted to drinking or smoking marijuana to keep the memories at bay, though, as they often discovered, the effect could be just the opposite.

The scale of the suffering is immense, and largely avoidable. This is why it’s incumbent that the voters of IL-02 take a stand and stop the NRA and its handpicked candidate, Debbie Halvorson, dead in her tracks. From where I stand, it’s beginning to look like we are at long last turning on corner on the gun issue, after many years of inaction and backsliding. Right now, the chances that this Congress will pass some form of gun control are looking good. Let’s continue the momentum.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee