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The Curse of the Second Congressional District

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[From left to right: Mel Reynolds, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Gus Savage]

Last Friday, State Sen. Donne Trotter formally withdrew from the Second Congressional District special election to replace Jesse Jackson, Jr. The announcement came three weeks after he was arrested at O'Hare for trying to pass through security with a concealed gun. At the time of his arrest, Trotter was considered the front-runner to win the special election. Of course, the special election had only come about because the avalanching shenanigans of Jesse Jackson, Jr. forced his resignation.

The incidents involving Trotter and Jackson are just the latest examples that show how the constituents of the second congressional district are cursed. Because there's no other way to explain the misfortune that has plagued the district's constituents over the last 30 years.

It wasn't always this way, though. For the first 150 years or so of the district's existence, it hosted a colorful collection of Congressmen.

James Woodworth, who held the seat from 1855 to 1857, also served several terms as Chicago mayor, was a founding trustee of both the "old" University of Chicago and the Chicago Astronomical Society, and helped make Chicago an economic center by guiding the Midwest's railways and water traffic through the city.

From 1903 to 1922, the congressman of the 2nd district was James Robert Mann, author of the Mann Act of 1910 (aka the White Slave Traffic Act) which prohibited the interstate transportation of women for prostitution.

Abner Mikva served as the district's representative from 1969 until 1973. In 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals where he served until 1994 when he retired to serve as White House counsel for then-President Bill Clinton.

And from 1853 to 1855, just before Woodworth, there was John Wentworth whose two-year stint as the second district's rep was part of a long political career that culminated in his service as Chicago's mayor. Wentworth also served in Congress as a representative of Illinoi's first and fourth districts and during his Congressional tenure, he was offered a deal by Wisconsin that would have extended that state's border to the southern tip of Lake Michigan. His reward had he allowed the Badger state to expand? A seat in the U.S. Senate. Wentworth said no.

So, then, it's easy to understand why I can't help but view the district as anything but cursed. How else to explain that the last three representatives have been, in succession, a virulent racist, a statutory rapist, and a scandal-laden charlatan? How else to explain the ascension of Gus Savage, who held the seat from 1981 until 1993? Somehow, Savage held on to his seat for 12 years despite numerous challengers, racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and accusations of verbally and physical sexual harassment of a Peace Corp. volunteer during a press junket tour of Ethiopia in 1989. He also had a habit of using homophobic slurs towards reporters whose questions he didn't like.

Finally ousting Savage in 1992 was an upstart reformer named Mel Reynolds. A graduate of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, an MPA from Harvard, and a Rhodes Scholar, hopes were high for Reynolds. Instead, in August 1994, less than 2 years after his election, he was indicted on a host of charges stemming from a sexual relationship he carried on with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer. In 1995, Reynolds was forced to resign his seat.

Winning the seat after Reynolds' exit was a charismatic up-and-comer, Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of the famed Rev. Jesse Jackson. For years, Jackson served without controversy, happy to build a reputation that helped him escape his father's shadow. Then, in 2008, he was connected to the pay-for-play scandal that ensnared then-governor Rod Blagojevich. Jackson allegedly offered up fundraising to Blago in exchange for appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after he won the 2008 Presidential election.

In early June of this year, Jesse Jackson, Jr. made his last public appearance before disappearing into the ether. In the interim, he's been in and out of the Mayo Clinic for treatment of bipolar disorder, become the target of a federal investigation into misuse of campaign funds, and, jus weeks after winning re-election in November, resigned his seat in disgrace.

The curse's source remains unknown, the misery of the second district voters still intact as they prepare for yet another special election. Even Reynolds has risen from the political graveyard to run for his old seat, a specter of the past that continues to haunt the district. This, even after Savage, despite his morally repugnant behavior, managed to keep his seat for 12 years, never receiving less than 82 percent of the vote in a general election until 1990, the year after he was accused of sexual harassment, when he received "only" 78 percent of the vote.

Those dark cosmic forces maintained their veil over the electorate in November 1994 when Reynolds, just months after his statutory rape indictment, Reynolds, unopposed from any major party challenger, received 98 percent of the vote over several independent candidates in his re-election bid.

The curse's iron grip held fast when in November when Jackson, sight unseen, was never seriously challenged on his way to a startling victory in which he garnered 63 percent of the vote.

And so this curse of mysterious origins remains unabated, its cause still a mind-bending unknown, holding hostage the tortured souls of our state's Second Congressional District. No amount of voodoo seems to have reversed the cloud of calamity that has swallowed the area whole, keeping fraudulent abusers of power in place. There seems to be no magic remedy that can save them from this string of awful leaders who somehow, some way, manage to maintain their terrible cycle of darkness and dismay.

Even the once-mighty Cook County Democratic Party has been stymied, endorsing no one for the upcoming special election primary, handing over its faith to the fates and hoping for the best. And, that's all the district's voters can do: hope and pray that somehow this evil spell is broken, that, somehow, salvation will arrive and free the them from the malicious cycle that's held them captive for so long.

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