By John A. Ostenburg
The pre-Thanksgiving Day resignation of Congressman Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) was painful for me and lots of other folks who have worked with him over the past 17 years, and – despite how he may be portrayed in the press these days – many of us still rank him as a friend.
I’m saddened by what has befallen him for several reasons.
First, the health problem he currently is facing is a difficult one for both diagnosis and treatment. Lots of us have health-related issues – I’m diabetic, have high-blood pressure, deal with some cholesterol problems – but bipolar disorder is unique in that its manifestations vary so widely from moment to moment. The mood-swings from debilitating depression to near extreme levels of energy and excitement have an impact not only on the sufferer, but also on loved ones, colleagues, and others who are in regular contact with him/her. While medication can control some of the effects of the disease – just as my medications help me with my health problems – the more intense aspects of bipolar disorder, which could include the potential to do harm to self or others, can be treated only through extensive hospitalization. The latter seems to be the situation in which Congressman Jackson has found himself over the last several months.
Secondly, though, it appears that Congressman Jackson may have committed some acts that constituted an unfortunate breech of ethics by someone who should have known better. Not only has he had nearly two decades of congressional experience, which should have better acquainted him with the federal rules and regulations for using campaign dollars, but also he is one who holds higher degrees in both theology and law, the premises of which dictate most of the particulars of good ethical behavior. While it may be true that his judgment was compromised by his illness at the time he made some of those unwise decisions, the illness cannot exonerate him completely from responsibility for his behavior. He has said so himself.
Personally, the Congressman has been a very good friend for the last several years, supporting my own political endeavors and being ever responsive to requests for federal assistance regarding my community and its needs. For more than 10 years, we have worked closely together on efforts to create the Abraham Lincoln National Airport. It was through his efforts that the communities of Matteson, Olympia Fields, Park Forest, and Richton Park were able to come together to form the SouthCom Dispatch Center, for which Congressman Jackson obtained the federal funding needed to get the project off the ground. His support for the Village of Park Forest has been remarkable, allowing us to qualify for millions of dollars in federal grants for street repairs, street lighting, sewer repairs, police and fire department enhancements, etc. So many of the things we’ve accomplished in Park Forest could not have happened without his personal help. Indeed, he has been a very good and effective Congressman for the people of Illinois’ Second Congressional District.
But, again, none of that removes him from responsibility for failing to fulfill the statutory requirements for spending campaign funds, etc. Yet, from what I know at this point, the alleged Jackson wrong-doing is much different from those wrong-doings that resulted in convictions for other Illinois political figures over the last several years: Governors Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich; Congressmen Dan Rostenkowski and Mel Reynolds; Attorney General William Scott; numerous Chicago aldermen; and the list goes on. The supposed wrong-doing committed by Congressman Jackson appears not to have involved any tax dollars, but rather only campaign funds. Quite possibly, many of those who donated those funds might not object in the least to how they were used. Yet, as was the case with former U.S. Senator John Edwards, Congressman Jackson appears to have violated both the spirit and the letter as regards the federal statues that govern campaign contributions. Neither man was above the law, and – although Mr. Edwards managed to escape conviction for his supposed offenses – both must face the consequence of public outrage.
Congressman Jackson’s actions were wrong and have brought disrepute onto this congressional district. I think he realizes that and the realization itself has become part of the depression that is companion to his illness. I recall an early-morning telephone call from him a couple of years ago when the news came out about alleged improper behavior. I was in New Orleans attending a conference at the time and the telephone call came to my cell-phone on a Saturday morning. The Congressman’s apology to me, as one of his supporters, was very genuine and I could detect the true sorrow in his voice. He kept saying over and over, "I’m sorry to have let you down." Learning now of his bipolar condition, I better understand the depressed behavior he exhibited in that telephone call.
Whoever is chosen to be Mr. Jackson’s replacement in Congress (and my personal choice is former State Representative Robin Kelly) will find the job made easier because of the many accomplishments that have marked the Jackson tenure, albeit he/she may face intense scrutiny from the press and other government-watchers regarding personal behavior as a result of being his successor. I’m not sure, though, that such close observation of elected officials is such a bad thing: future members of Congress from Illinois’ Second Congressional District will be forced to carefully observe both spirit and letter of the law to the fullest extent possible. Perhaps had Congressmen Jackson, Reynolds, and Gus Savage been forced to do so, the district’s reputation today would be better than it is.
Personally, my message to Congressman Jackson is simple: thank you for all you’ve done; remember that all the good far outweighs the rest; and, be well.
John A. Ostenburg is in his fourth four-year term as mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He retired in July 2010 as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union after holding various CTU posts over a 15-year period. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he also has been a teacher and/or administrator at elementary, secondary, community college, and university levels. E-mail him at [email protected].