Mel Reynolds, who announced Wednesday he will try to regain the Congressional seat he gave up in 1995, has a better chance of winning the Lotto than he does of getting back to Washington, D.C.
But don’t be so hard on the man. If it hadn’t been for Reynolds’s lust for teenage flesh, Barack Obama might not be president today.
That’s right -- a sex scandal created the opening Barack Obama needed to get into politics.
Reynolds, then a second-term congressman from the South Side, was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old he’d met during his 1992 run for Congress. Reynolds had spotted the girl while driving around the district and pulled over to chat, even though he was supposed to be politicking and she was too young to vote. Soon after, she joined his campaign as volunteer and mistress. Two years later, the girl confessed to the affair to her next-door neighbor, who happened to be a Chicago police officer.
The state’s attorney set up a phone-sex sting. While sitting in a prosecutor’s office, the girl called Reynolds and told him she couldn’t make their tryst because she had to babysit.
“What you gonna wear?” Reynolds prompted.
“Well, my peach underwear, like you told me to. I was hoping we could do something really special but I see that’s not going to happen, I guess.”
“I was definitely gonna f---,” Reynolds said.
“Right in my office. I was gonna masturbate too.”
At the panting congressman’s urging, the girl spun a story of sex with a lesbian lover. When Reynolds asked if the other woman would be willing to do a threesome, the girl said no – but she knew a 15-year-old girl who might. A 15-year-old Catholic schoolgirl.
“Did I win the Lotto?” Reynolds exclaimed.
There was no 15-year-old schoolgirl. But this declaration of a married congressman’s lust for teenagers turned into a catchphrase. Jay Leno joked about it on The Tonight Show. The case was so salacious it made headlines in Chicago for more than a year. Reynolds won re-election in his heavily Democratic district, but, by 1995, he was facing a trial that threatened to cost him his seat in Congress.
Reynolds protested that he was guilty only of phone sex and erotic fantasies, but, as his trial approached, a challenger stepped forward. State Sen. Alice Palmer announced she would run against Reynolds in the Democratic primary the following March. Palmer’s seat was up for re-election in 1996, so, win or lose, she would be leaving the legislature. As a middle-aged woman, Palmer figured to be an appealing candidate against a congressman caught in a sex scandal. She immediately won the support of EMILY’S List, which donates to female politicians around the country.
Palmer’s district included Hyde Park, so this was Obama’s chance. He decided he wanted to run for the seat and do it with Palmer’s blessing. But despite his political involvement, Obama had never met his state senator. He had an in, though: Brian Banks, his old colleague from Project Vote!, was managing Palmer’s campaign. Obama called him.
“I want to run,” he told Banks. “I want to talk to Alice.”
Banks arranged a meeting at the North Side home of Hal Baron, a former Harold Washington appointee who was chairing Palmer’s campaign. At the meeting, Obama told Palmer of his plans.
“Do you have any problem with that?” he asked, wanting assurance, “and will you come back if you lose?”
The second question was especially important to Obama because, by the time he met Palmer, Mel Reynolds had been convicted, imprisoned, and resigned his seat in Congress. Palmer was no longer running in the March 1996 primary. She was running in a special election, scheduled for November 28, 1995, which would give her enough time to re-file for the state senate if she lost. And defeat was a real possibility because two better-known challengers had entered the race: Emil Jones, Jr., minority leader of the state senate, and Jesse Jackson, Jr., 30-year-old son and namesake of the civil rights leader. Palmer assured Obama she was all in. It was going to be Congress or bust.
Obama won Palmer’s senate seat, and the rest is history -- history that began with a horny congressman.