Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2012, 6:00 am

Jesse Jackson Jr.; still MIA from Congress

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Chicago Tribune

If U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s constituents were troubled by the uncertainty that has enveloped him for months, you wouldn't have known it on Election Day, when they gave him 63 percent of the vote.

We have to wonder how many of those voters, just days later, still believe he'll return to Congress. We sure don't. With every news cycle, it appears more certain that Jackson's re-election bid was less about continuing to serve his district than about securing a bargaining chip in negotiations with federal prosecutors.

Whatever doubts voters may have had before the election were likely calmed by the last-minute robocalls in which Jackson, who's been absent since June, pleaded "for your continued patience as I work to get my health back." Though the recorded message alluded to "a series of events" that together caused his withdrawal from public life, Jackson said he was "anxious to return to work on your behalf."

Voters knew something of that series of events. For years Jackson has lived under the cloud of a congressional ethics investigation into whether he attempted to buy a U.S. Senate appointment from ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Jackson's illness, first cited as exhaustion, surfaced just as a friend who allegedly tried to broker that deal was arrested on unrelated charges.

It was weeks before Jackson's staff revealed that he was being treated for debilitating ailments -- gastrointestinal issues and bipolar disorder — that would keep him out of work indefinitely. Details were scant, for months.

Then weeks before the election, the Sun-Times and the Wall Street Journal reported that Jackson was the subject of a separate federal investigation into whether he'd illegally spent campaign money to decorate his home -- a probe that was launched before he began his sick leave from Congress. The Journal also said Jackson's attorneys had asked prosecutors not to file charges before the election, but that no such assurances were made.

There was no official confirmation of any of that, but no denial from the Jackson camp, either. Still, Jackson's robocalls seemed to signal that if charges were coming, he planned to fight them and return to work. There was no hint that a plea bargain was being discussed.

That news broke the day after the election.

Talks reportedly include allowing Jackson to resign from Congress but keep his pension. He would plead guilty to misuse of campaign funds, repay that money and serve some time in jail.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that voters just handed Jackson back his job so he could surrender it to prosecutors in exchange for leniency. Or that Jackson and others gamed the political system for their own selfish reasons.

Or that this election was never really about who would represent the 2nd Congressional District for the next two years.

Local pols are chattering openly about who might run in the special election that would follow a Jackson resignation. That wouldn't happen until at least April, and then only if Jackson were to resign by Dec. 12.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives returned to a full agenda this week. Jackson's seat was empty. At home, there's much unfinished business, too. Renewal of the U.S. Steel site on Chicago's South Side, the revival of the old Dixie Square Mall site in Harvey, the planned airport near Peotone.

Jackson was released from his latest stay at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota on Tuesday and promptly dropped out of sight.

It's hard to tell which of Jackson's teams -- medical, legal or political -- is calling the shots for him. What's clear is that whatever machinations are at work, they're about what's good for Jackson, not what's good for his constituents. That's a shame.

Jackson asked them to support him even though they've had no representation since June, and even though he gave them no indication of when that might change.

Voters took a leap of faith Nov. 6. They deserve better.