By Sophia Tareen
ABOVE PHOTO: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., right, and his wife Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, left, applaud as President Barack Obama is introduced at Ford Motor Company Chicago Assembly Plant, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill.— Isaac Hayes, a conservative Republican challenging U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is getting more attention lately — and not just because he shares a name with the soul legend known for the “Shaft” theme.
More revelations about Jackson’s links to the corruption case of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and a relationship he had with a female “social acquaintance” have given Hayes an opening in the reliably Democratic and largely black district that Jackson won with nearly 90 percent of the vote two years ago.
Hayes suddenly is getting notice from national Republicans and is being mentioned often on black radio stations. While political experts see him as unlikely to score an upset in November, he could benefit from voter sentiment about Jackson’s troubles.
“There has to be a change,” Hayes said. “People are saying ‘enough is enough.'”
Emma Pouncy, a 66-year-old retiree in the 2nd Congressional District, which covers Chicago’s South Side and south suburbs, voted for Jackson over the years because of his work for a third area airport and because of his family’s civil rights legacy, namely his father the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But now she says she won’t vote at all, citing the Blagojevich corruption allegations and affair.
“He was dependable, everybody thought he was a nice guy,” she said. “But things change. We can only take so much.”
Hayes is trying to capitalize on Jackson’s troubles; his website is called isaac4honesty.com. He bills himself as a “Booker T. Washington Republican” who is conservative on fiscal and social issues — he opposes abortion and gay marriage or civil unions — and as a fighter for civil rights.
The son of a minister, Hayes works at the massive Apostolic Church Of God on Chicago’s South Side where 20,000 people are members and 7,000 regularly attend services. Hayes thinks he can win by appealing to devout Christians and independents.
“He’s a new conservative African-American who is exactly what people are looking for in this environment,” said Lee Roupas, chairman of Cook County Republicans. “Given the corruption, the lies, the scandals surrounding Jesse Jackson Jr., this is a race that we’re taking seriously.”
In an unusual move, the National Republican Congressional Committee last month named Hayes a candidate to watch in its “Young Guns” program — usually designated in districts that are more of a toss-up. For the first time, the black-owned Kankakee City News has endorsed Hayes over Jackson, citing the Blagojevich allegations.
“This is the first time that (Jackson has) excited his constituency in a negative way,” said Alan Gitelson, a Loyola University of Chicago political science professor. “This is new territory.”
Jackson has been dogged by corruption allegations connected to Blagojevich since 2008. When the former governor was charged for allegedly trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, Jackson acknowledged that he was named in the criminal complaint as a potential Senate candidate who had been in touch with Blagojevich.
The former governor, who denies wrongdoing, will be tried again next year after his case ended in a hung jury on all but one of 23 criminal counts against him.
Jackson hasn’t been charged and denies wrongdoing, but the allegations have gotten more serious.
Last month, after Jackson’s name surfaced as a possible contender to replace the retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that businessman Raghuveer Nayak told the FBI that Jackson directed him to offer Blagojevich $6 million for the seat. Jackson denied it.
Nayak also allegedly told investigators Jackson asked him to buy plane tickets for a woman to visit Jackson. Both Jackson and his wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, acknowledged Jackson’s relationship with the woman, but called it a “private matter” and said they had dealt with it through counseling.
“He makes me think, if he’s taking chances ruining his family, what chances might he take if he’s tempted with something in his career?” said Kristopher McCoy, a 49-year-old Harvey resident who works for FedEx.
Adding to voter frustration is that Jackson has maintained a low profile since the 2008 allegations. Voters, business leaders and other politicians say he rarely attends events in the district. He gives few interviews and declined to be interviewed for this story.
“The voters have consistently recognized his service, but as always he is taking nothing for granted,” his spokesman, Andrew Wilson, said in a statement. “He will continue to make his case to the people of Chicago and the South Suburbs.”
Democrats insist the seat isn’t in trouble. For one, they point to an overwhelming disparity in fundraising. Hayes has only raised about $32,000, compared with Jackson’s $710,000 as of June 30.
“It would be virtually impossible for a Republican to win,” said Scott Cisek, the political director of Cook County Democrats. “Good strong Democrats will come out and vote for Jackson. He does have a brand, even if there has been an attempt to tarnish it.”
Hayes is working on his own brand. While he disliked his name growing up, now he believes it is helping him get attention.
“Once people hear it, they don’t forget it,” he said.