CHICAGO — Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. quietly resigned Wednesday, effectively ending a once-promising political career months after the civil rights icon’s son went on a mysterious medical leave while facing separate federal investigations.
Just two weeks after voters re-elected him to a ninth full term, Jackson sent his resignation letter to House Speaker John Boehner, citing his ongoing treatment for bipolar disorder and admitting “my share of mistakes.”
The House Ethics Committee is investigating his dealings with imprisoned ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and for the first time Jackson publicly acknowledged reports of a new federal probe believed to be looking into his possible misuse of campaign money.
“I am aware of the ongoing federal investigation into my activities and I am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators, and accept responsibility for my mistakes,” he wrote, adding “they are my mistakes and mine alone.”
Jackson, 47, disappeared in June, and it was later revealed that he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic for bipolar disorder and gastrointestinal issues. He returned to his Washington home in September but went back to the clinic the next month, with his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, saying his son had not yet “regained his balance.”
On Wednesday night, Jackson told reporters that his son resigned because he did not believe he could continue with his political career and try to regain his health at the same time.
“He made the decision to choose his health,” said Jackson.
The elder Jackson said that his son had wanted to hold a news conference to discuss his decision to step down but did not believe he could do so without “breaking down.”
He also said there is no way of knowing how long it will take for his son to recover from what he characterized as an “internal unresolved challenge.”
“It’s not the kind of illness you can put a timetable on,” Jackson said, adding that he is confident that his son “will get well in time.”
Jesse Jackson Jr. first took office in 1995 after winning a special election in a largely urban and Democratic district and began his career in Washington with a star power and pedigree that set him apart from his hundreds of other House colleagues.
But despite high expectations, he largely went unnoticed as a policymaker. Instead, he gained a reputation for quixotic pursuits such as trying to impeach President George W. Bush and push through constitutional amendments that had no chance.
He attended an elite private school in Washington and earned a law degree and a master’s in theology. Over the years he bragged about spending his 21st birthday in jail after being arrested in an anti-apartheid protest, co-authored books with his father and developed his own a charismatic speaking style, with near perfect diction and often punctuated by finger pointing.
Shortly after taking office, he was deemed People magazine’s sexiest politician in 1997 and became one of the most outspoken and quoted liberals in the House. There was a near-Hollywood buzz over his newly svelte figure in 2005 when he quietly dropped 50 pounds, disclosing months later that he had had weight-loss surgery.
Perhaps his shining moment as a Democratic leader was in 2008, when Jackson served as the national co-chair of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He had his sights set on U.S. senator or Chicago’s mayor.
Then came Blagojevich.
Though never charged, Jackson had to repeatedly dodge allegations that he was involved in discussions about raising campaign funds for the now-imprisoned former governor in exchange for an appointment to Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Jackson — who testified at Blagojevich’s second corruption trial — always maintained that he was innocent and that his name would be cleared. Through the proceedings it was revealed that Jackson had an extramarital affair, something his wife detailed in a front-page newspaper interview.
The congressman kept a low profile for years, avoiding interview requests and public appearances.
It wasn’t until this year that glimpses of Jackson’s former self emerged. He was forced to campaign seriously for the first time in years when former Rep. Debbie Halvorson put up an intense primary challenge. He easily won and gave a triumphant victory speech with his wife and children by his side.
Neither Jackson’s family nor staff ever fully explained what was happening with the congressman’s health or if he’d return at all. A few times, staff seemed optimistic and so did voters in his Chicago-area district where he easily won re-election to a ninth full term this month despite, despite his only communication with voters coming through a robocall in which he asked for patience.
The timing of Jackson’s leave and the way it was handled invited more scrutiny. Jackson’s leave was announced just after a former fundraiser connected to the Blagojevich allegations was arrested on unrelated medical fraud charges.
The resignation left the House committee’s investigation in the air. Since Jackson is no longer a congressman, the panel no longer has the power to punish him but could release a final report detailing its findings. A committee spokesman did not immediately return a message on Wednesday.
Reaction to his resignation was swift.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that she’d spoke with both Jesse Jackson Jr. and his father Wednesday afternoon and accepted the news with “great sadness.”
Rep. Danny Davis, a fellow member of Congressional Black Caucus, said Jackson’s senior position on the House Appropriations Committee and his leadership would be missed. But he also said the way in which Jackson was leaving tarnished his image.
“It certainly does not leave his legacy untouched in as positive light as one would have hoped and wanted,” he said.
He declined to comment on the federal investigation, saying he had no details, but the issue did appear to resonate with some voters.
“It was time,” said retiree Gloria Pryor, who has voted for Jackson several times. “If he’s done the things he’s accused of doing then he should leave and apologize to the people of this community.”
The vacancy left by Jackson’s departure creates a rare opportunity for someone else to represent his district, which is made up of South Side Chicago neighborhoods, several southern suburbs and some rural areas.
Even before the resignation the gambit of potential successors floated around Chicago. Prominent Chicago attorney Sam Adam Jr., a onetime attorney for Blagojevich and R&B singer R. Kelly, said he’d be interested. Other names circulating are Chicago Aldermen Sandi Jackson and Anthony Beale, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Halvorson.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has five days to schedule an election to replace Jackson, and the election must be held within 115 days, according to election officials. Quinn said he planned to schedule both a primary and a general election.