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Special congressional elections don't occur regularly, but Chicago has held several high-profile such elections over time.           

Jackson plea deal would affect constituents, trigger special election

by Andrew Hedlund
Nov 14, 2012

After taking a medical leave of absence in June, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago) now may face an even longer absence from his district.

Michael Sneed reported in the Chicago Sun-Times last week that unnamed sources told her the 16-year congressman was negotiating a plea deal with federal prosecutors for allegedly misusing campaign funds. CBS 2 television and Fox News Chicago, both citing unnamed sources, subsequently reported that Jackson hired Dan Webb, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, to represent him.

Jackson has been on medical leave since June 10 for treatment of a bipolar disorder. He handily won re-election last week despite his absence from the district.

If Jackson resigns from Congress, that action would trigger a special election, and leave his constituents without essential services in the meantime.

“You wear two hats [as a legislator],” said former U.S. Rep. Terry Bruce (D-Champaign). “The first duty is constituent service and handling constituent problems. And the second one is being a legislator, federal or state, and taking and passing legislation that deals with problem or issues that face the state or nation.”

Bruce, who served in the House of Representatives from 1985 to 1993, constantly found himself working with constituents on everything from missing Social Security checks to veterans’ issues.

“Most people have a problem with the government and that’s your biggest job,” he said. “How can I solve the problem you have with the government? That’s the biggest thing that I did.”

When a congressman or congresswoman is absent, the day-to-day operations continue in the office, and the most important decisions then rest with his or her chief of staff. Bruce described the chief of staff selection as “the most important decision you make as a congressman.”

Frank Watkins, Jackson’s communications director, confirmed that business is proceeding as usual while the congressman is on medical leave.

“Constituents have continued to be served by the staff in the 2nd Congressional District just like before they have been on medical leave,” he said.

“The only change here in Washington is he’s the only who can vote and he has to sign an official document to add someone as a cosponsor to any bill. The staff has continued to meet with constituents and lobbyists just they always have.”

If a representative is absent, the constituents do not have anyone to ensure their interests are being represented in the legislative process.

“One of your most important functions is to lead one of the three branches of government,” Bruce said. “You are in charge of making sure the legislative branch does its fair share of the heavy lifting.”

If Jackson vacates his seat as a part of a plea bargain, a special election will take place, though Watkins was not able to comment on any possible deal.

Gov. Pat Quinn must call for a special election within five days of the vacancy to schedule the primary and general elections. Both must take place within 115 days, said Ken Menzel, the deputy general counsel at the Illinois State Board of Elections.

“Other than that they are essentially conducted -- other than being at unique date -- just like any other primary and general election combo,” Menzel said. “It’s a greatly compacted schedule.”

This year’s primaries were held in March, while the general election occurred in November, leaving the candidates and their campaigns more than half the year to prepare. In some previous special elections there has been as little as four weeks between primary and general election.

The short time frame tends to favor candidates with well-known names or backing of one of the two major parties, Menzel said.

“Doing two elections in a four-month period truncates all of your time frames,” he said.

The election code lists multiple occurrences that can lead to a vacancy including the death of the office holder, resignation or conviction of a felony or infamous crime, Menzel said.

To cut costs, the state often tries to schedule special congressional elections alongside other races, he said.

“Given this one, it wouldn’t surprise me, if we get some sort of a vacancy fairly early in the year if the governor were to try to work the April 9 local elections in as at least one of the days,” Menzel said.

Just because a representative is absent , doesn’t mean Congress stops.

“Constituent services kind of roll along with the staff during the time until a new person is elected, you still have the congressman’s staff,” Menzel said.

Bruce, the former congressman, said representatives are the “frontiersmen” of government because they are the most visible to their constituents; sightings of a congressperson are more commonplace than sightings of a senator, let alone the president.

“When government really comes down to it,” Bruce said, “the most important governmental entity, other than your local postman delivering your mail every day, is the United States congressman, so it’s important you be around.”

A spokesman for the House Ethics Committee declined to comment on
Jackson’s situation.