Around a table at a suburban coffeehouse, talk turns to the upcoming congressional election to replace the imprisoned Mel Reynolds.
Eyes roll. Snide comments fly.
“It’d be nice to have representation that actually works for the community,” said Jeanne Gummerson, 34, a city trustee in suburban Flossmoor.
“We voted Gus Savage out; we thought Mel Reynolds was our chance - and look what happened,” she said acidly as her friends nodded in agreement.
Savage’s 12 years in Congress ended after a sexual-harassment scandal with a Peace Corps worker. Then came Reynolds, who was elected to rescue the district from Savage but wound up going to prison for having sex with a teenage campaign volunteer.
Now there’s a mixture of apathy, fatalism and even perverse optimism - How could anyone be worse? - as Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District prepares for today’s primary and the Dec. 12 election to fill the year left in Reynolds’ term. Reynolds resigned Oct. 1 to begin a five-year sentence.
Though candidates include Jesse Jackson Jr., son of the civil rights leader, and three veteran state legislators, some voters have trouble naming any of those running. Others don’t even know about the election.
“People are just kind of numb,” said Kevin Conlon, a Democratic committeeman.
The district stretches from poor black neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side through middle-class and wealthier communities in the suburbs. Two-thirds of its residents are black. Roughly the same proportion live in Chicago.
The four leading contenders are all black Democrats. Recent polls give the edge to Jackson, the 30-year-old field director of the National Rainbow Coalition, his father’s political group.
But Jackson has never held elective office, and conventional wisdom says that since Reynolds was a little-known outsider when he was elected in 1992, voters will go with a known quantity this time.
The Rev. James Demus, a longtime Jackson family friend, nevertheless supports the more seasoned Alice Palmer, a 56-year-old state senator and former Northwestern University dean.
“The people have been embarrassed by their last two representatives. I think they want someone they can trust,” Demus said. “That’s probably the central issue: Is this person going to embarrass us?”
Another leading contender is Emil Jones, minority leader in the state Senate and a 22-year legislative veteran from the far South Side. Rivals call him a machine politician.
Also running is state Rep. Monique Davis, 59, an outspoken former educational administrator who claims support from Savage and Louis Farrakhan.
In the Republican primary, only two of the four contenders have campaigned actively. Neither is given much chance in the heavily Democratic district.