Jesse Jackson Jr. resigned from Congress with a poignant note of acceptance after a personal journey that took a heartbreaking turn.
“For seventeen years I have given 100 percent of my time, energy, and life to public service,” Jackson wrote in a letter delivered on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday. “However, over the past several months, as my health has deteriorated, my ability to serve the constituents of my district has continued to diminish. Against the recommendations of my doctors, I had hoped and tried to return to Washington and continue working on the issues that matter most of the people of the Second District. I know now that will not be possible.”
Jackson pulled few punches. The congressman, who has been receiving inpatient treatment for bipolar disorder, acknowledged not just the health challenges he has faced but a deeply embarrassing federal investigation into the misdirection of campaign funds. “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, “for they are my mistakes and mine alone.”
In an era when so many political figures refuse to take any responsibility for their actions, it is notable that Jackson chose to exit with an acknowledgement of his own fallibility.
Yes, mistakes were made and there is no point in trying to diminish them. It is appropriate to recognize that Jackson’s reputation has been tarnished, and that he faces a long struggle to resolve the personal and legal troubles that have derailed his congressional career. But as someone who covered Jackson throughout his seventeen years in the House, I also recognize that focusing merely on the missteps that have ended his career obscures the full story of this man and his service.
Through the vast majority of his time in Washington, Jesse Jackson Jr. was an accomplished and valuable member of the House—a progressive representative, yes, but more than that. He was an all-too-rare congressional champion who went beyond the call of duty in struggles for peace and economic and social justice.
From the moment the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson was elected to the House in a 1995 special election, he began compiling one of the most independent and reform-oriented records in the chamber. Jackson clashed not just with the economic royalists on the right but with Democrats who chose to compromise with the forces of reaction, militarism and austerity. This consistency cost him politically; it was tougher for him to raise money and to attain the powerful positions that are apportioned to those who compromise with the unconscionable.
Jackson voted against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq. But he did more than that. He signed on for the lawsuit, filed by constitutional lawyer John Bonifaz, which argued that Bush could not take the country to war without a full declaration from Congress. As the full extent of the wrongdoing that led the United States into that unjustified war was revealed, Jackson demanded accountability for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. “Our democratic system is grounded in the principle of checks and balances,” he said.“ When the Executive Branch disregards the will of the people, our lawmakers must not be silent.”
Jackson voted against the Patriot Act. But he did more than that. He joined then-Congressman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, to promote legislation to exempt libraries and bookstores from having to comply with unwarranted federal demands for the reading lists of citizens.
Jackson condemned the US Supreme Court intervention in the case of Bush v. Gore, which shut down the Florida recount and handed the presidency to George Bush. But he did more than that. One year after the 2000 election, when most Democrats were frightened to say anything negative about Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Jackson stood in front of the Supreme Court to challenge the legitimacy of the decision that made Bush president and to say, “The disputes in Florida and other states showed us that we need one national standard for voting and one national standard for counting votes. But they also reminded us that there are more basic reforms that are needed.… Even though the right to vote is the supreme right in a democracy, the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore told Americans there is no explicit fundamental right to suffrage in the Constitution.” And he proposed to amend the Constitution to establish that right, along with a right to have every vote counted in a verifiable manner.
Jackson condemned George W. Bush’s free-trade agenda. But he did more than that. He opposed free-trade deals promoted by former President Clinton and by President Obama. He even broke with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1998 to oppose the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA, as that deal was known, was dubbed “NAFTA for Africa” by the business press. Jackson refused to accept the spin from Wall Street and its political echo chamber. He took the counsel of South African President Nelson Mandela and Africa trade unionists who decried the act as a move to make it even easier for multinational corporations to exploit the continent’s workers and resources. Jackson decried the proposal as the “Africa Re-colonization Act,” and argued during the House debate on the issue that, “The AGOA extends short-lived trade ‘benefits’ for the nations of sub-Sahara Africa. In exchange for these crumbs from globalization’s table, the African nations must pay a huge price: adherence to economic policies that serve the interests of foreign creditors, multinational corporations and financial speculators at the expense of the majority of Africans.”
The congressman asked, “Whose interests will the AGOA advance? Look at the coalition promoting it—a corporate who’s who of oil giants, banking and insurance interests, as well as apparel firms seeking one more place to locate their low-paying sweatshops. Some of these corporations are already infamous in Africa for their disregard for the environment and human rights.”
Even as he wrestled with the ailments that would end his House career, Jackson remained the bold and visionary champion he had always been on essential economic issues. While most other Democrats were practicing election-year caution last spring, he was pushing the debate in the direction it needed to head.
Dubbed the “Catching Up To 1968 Act of 2012,” Jackson’s last major initiative was a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. “That may sound like a hefty wage increase, but it doesn’t fully equal the purchasing power of the minimum wage in 1968—which today would be closer to $11 per hour,” the congressman explained when he introduce the measure in June. “This bill is really only allowing American workers a degree of ‘catch-up.’ Thus the name and theme around the bill: ‘Catching Up To 1968.’”
Jesse Jackson Jr. served his constituents and his conscience through seventeen of the most demanding years in the history of the US House of Representatives. He cast more courageous votes and stood on principle more consistently than the vast majority of his colleagues. His career has ended on a sad note for Jackson, and for those who respected him. But it would be sadder still if we were to neglect the long arc of his service to the republic, a service that bent toward economic and social justice.