Jesse Jackson Jr. is the third consecutive 2nd District congressman to leave office as the result of a scandal.
The district’s tradition of kinkiness and hinkiness goes back to 1980, when Gus Savage, a neighborhood newspaper publisher was elected to the seat. Savage was an outspoken anti-Semite who publicly agreed with constituent Louis Farrakhan’s statements that “Hitler was a great man” and Judaism “a gutter religion.” But that’s not what got him into trouble. During a junket to Zaire in 1989, Savage pawed a female Peace Corps volunteer in the back seat of a limousine. The woman was so traumatized she had to be flown back to the United States, and Savage got a tongue-lashing from the U.S. ambassador. At first, the congressman told his accuser she was “a traitor to the black movement” for refusing his advances, but wrote her a letter of apology to avoid censure by the House Ethics Committee.
“Although there is lively debate regarding who is the best congressman,” wrote Washington Post columnist George Will in 1992, “there is a broad, bipartisan, multiracial consensus that the worst is Gus Savage.”
Mel Reynolds, who rose from the cotton fields of Mississippi and the projects of the South Side to become Illinois’ first black Rhodes Scholar, challenged Savage three times before finally defeating him in 1992. (During their 1990 campaign, Savage gave a speech in which he recited the names of Reynolds’s Jewish campaign contributors.)
In much the same way that Barack Obama would be a decade later, the 40-year-old Reynolds was seen as a new generation of black leadership, one that celebrated achievement and set aside racial grievances. He didn’t even last two terms.
Reynolds’s undoing was also carnal: he was accused of having sex with a 16-year-old he’d met during his 1992 run for office. 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.”
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 Reynolds’s declaration of his 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’s transgressions fascinated a city jaded by political corruption, but eager to hear the salacious details of his jailbait trysts. Reynolds resigned and went to prison, and Jesse Jackson Jr. won the special election.
Second District voters, can you please do better this time? Your neighbors in the 1st District have given us some of Illinois’s most distinguished, most influential congressmen: Oscar DePriest, William Dawson, Ralph Metcalfe, Harold Washington. Bobby Rush will always be remembered as the only politician ever to defeat Obama in an election. C’mon, give us someone like that. If you do, we’ll feel like we won the Lotto.