CHICAGO — While Democrat Robin Kelly is widely expected to capture Tuesday's special election for former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s seat over Republican Paul McKinley, any winner will face big challenges.
Illinois' newest member of Congress will have big shoes to fill: Jackson was a 17-year incumbent who served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and brought home nearly $1 billion to the district. He also had strong relationships with mayors, activists and voters across the district that includes city neighborhoods, suburbs and some rural areas.
Jackson resigned in November. He pleaded guilty in February in federal court to lavishly misspending $750,000 in campaign funds.
Political experts, voters and mayors agree that Kelly, 56, has the edge. She's a former state representative, has received big name endorsements including from President Barack Obama and received a huge boost from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super PAC, which supported her gun control stance. Also, The district is solidly Democratic and has been for about six decades. McKinley is an ex-con-turned-community activist who barely won his primary.
Voter turnout is expected to be low Tuesday, the same day as many municipal elections statewide. Roughly 14 percent of voters turned out for the special primary in February, which Kelly easily captured.
The Matteson resident said whoever wins will face challenges, like being the last to get committee assignments and having to play catch up. But she believes she can be a voice on the national stage for gun control. Her primary victory speech, in which she issued a direct challenge to the National Rifle Association, earned praise from Bloomberg and Vice President Joe Biden. And Obama nodded to her anti-gun advocacy in his endorsement.
"I will have a voice in Congress as the debate is going on and as issues come to the floor," Kelly said. "I will attend everything I can attend."
But McKinley isn't so sure it's in the bag for Kelly. The Chicago man — who doesn't advocate for gun control — has focused his campaign on how his integration back into society after serving nearly 20 years in prison for robbery and other charges has made him ready to help others.
"I have a 50-50 chance like my opponent has," he said. "There is nothing written in stone that she's supposed to win."
Independent candidates Curtiss Llong Bey, Marcus Lewis and Elizabeth Pahlke are also running, as is Green Party candidate LeAllen M. Jones.
Whoever wins will face extra scrutiny on ethics.
The three previous congressmen in the Chicago-area district left office under an ethical cloud.
Until his resignation, Jackson remained under a House Ethics Committee investigation over ties to ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. His predecessor, Mel Reynolds, left office in 1995 and was convicted of fraud and having sex with a minor. Before that, Gus Savage faced allegations of sexual misconduct with a Peace Corps worker while on a congressional visit overseas.
"There's a lot of hope (among voters) because she's had a pretty clean record so far," said Don Rose, a longtime political consultant in Chicago. "It'll be a while before she can become a leader but it's a matter of what she does."
Others are just skeptical of any new congressman's ability in Washington.
Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin, who also backed Jackson, said he's become frustrated with partisan politics and with the monthslong absence of a congressman in the Chicago-area district that has large pockets of unemployment and poverty.
"He had some influence," Griffin said. "When a freshman person goes in dealing with guys who are well-grounded and unwilling to negotiate, nothing's going to transfer. The fact is that she is almost facing an insurmountable task."
The district's last special election was 1995 when Jackson won office.