Sunday, December 14, 2008
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. should bow out of contention for Obama’s Senate seat. True there is yet no evidence that he offered to grease Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s palm in return for the seat. But there’s a continuing probe into whether a Jackson family member or associates acted as Jackson’s paymasters to Blagojevich. The probe, the suspicions, and the time he has spent in his defense have hopelessly tainted him as a credible candidate for the seat. He should also withdraw because Blagojevich’s alleged funny money dealings has tossed too ugly a glare on Chicago’s wheel and deal, borderline legal racketeering politics. The whispers and rumors about Jackson Jr. will swirl no matter what the FBI and the U.S. attorney ultimately decide about the extent of his involvement in the scandal.
But this is really less important than the accusation against him. In politics, especially Chicago politics, protests of innocence to wrongdoing are not the same as innocence. Jackson Jr. is not just a Chicago politician. He’s an African-American politician who carries his famed father’s namesake. The elder Jackson who was also mentioned in the allegation of seat tampering is no stranger to controversy. That’s enough to further stir suspicions. It’s still race, however, that makes Jackson Jr.’s innocence or not most problematic. When black elected officials are accused of wrongdoing, the presumption of guilt hangs heavily in the air. That’s in part because the recent corruption scandals that have snared former Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson and Birmingham mayor Larry Langford have been plastered over the news. The cloud of suspicion is there in part too because in a few celebrated cases when they're indicted, jailed, accused of financial improprieties or ethics violations (as in the case of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who initially screamed race when she took a swing at a Capitol Police officer) the fingered officials have made race the centerpiece of their defense. During the 1990s, former Illinois Congressman Mel Reynolds screamed racism when he was indicted, tried and convicted of sexual assault charges. Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry screamed racism when he was indicted, tried and convicted on a drug charge. California Congressman Walter Tucker, convicted of bribery charges, loudly shouted racism.
When they're popped, they wail that they should not be held to a higher standard of accountability than white officials who get caught with their hand in the corruption cookie jar. When white politicians are jailed and pay hefty fines for violating campaign finance and ethics laws, nobody says that they have to be a cross between Mother Teresa and St. Paul.
However, even if Jackson is a victim of a slightly kooky governor as he and others claim, that still doesn’t absolve him of holding to a standard that leaves not the slightest doubt that he is above reproach. He represents the majority black Second Congressional District. His constituents view him not as other politicians, but as a leader and advocate. They look to him to represent their interests and to confront institutional power. Any legal smear on him, no matter how questionable that soils his name makes it much harder for blacks to retain confidence in them. This diminishes their political power and influence, creating distrust and dissension among black voters.
Jackson publicly pleaded to get his good name back. He knows full well that a taint, any taint, can hamper his ability to do his job. He has an even bigger burden than other black politicians who carry the same cross. His father insured that. The long and storied years of civil rights crusading by Jackson Sr. markedly increased expectations that his son would not be solely a legislative fighter but also a champion for the rights of the underdog, who in this case, happen to be many of his constituents.
Jackson to his credit did not reflexively try to deflect, dodge, and muddy the charges and accusations against him by screaming "racism." He wisely went in the opposite direction and singled out prosecutors for being honest and open and giving him a clean bill—for now.
Yet, Jackson, other black officials, and indeed all public officials will be keenly watched by state and federal prosecutors for any hint of impropriety. If they engage in any forbidden activities with money, they will swiftly be called on the legal carpet. The burden of proof, then, is on them to prove that they can and will do any and everything to avoid even the slightest smudge of scandal.
In Jackson Jr.’s case, a lot of damage has already been done. There are loud calls for him to withdraw his name from consideration for the Senate seat. Jackson hasn’t yet shown any willingness to do that. Unfortunately, the mud tossed on him will not wash off. It hasn’t on other black elected officials who’ve been rudely plopped on the scandal hot seat. Jackson should withdraw his name and do it now.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009). http://www.learnhowobamawon.blogspot.com