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Jesse and gerrymandering

Assured of re-election, Jackson was undone by his campaign cash

“I used monies that should have been used for campaign purposes, and I used them for myself personally, to benefit me personally. And I am acknowledging that which the government has presented is accurate.”

– Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins, Feb. 20, 2013

To the humiliation that Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, imposed on Illinois, you can add a political indictment: This state’s egregious gerrymandering aided and abetted the Jacksons’ long crime spree.

If Jackson had been running for office in a competitive district – rather than in one of the nation’s most overwhelmingly Democratic – the couple arguably would have had to spend campaign funds on needs more urgent than Build-a-Bear toy animals, what the feds delicately call Costco “undergarments,” and the goofy mounted elk heads.

Instead, Jackson, throughout his career, has been one among hundreds of congressional candidates of both major parties, running for seats in both houses, who raise bushels of campaign money that they don’t need.

In essence, they’re on the take in any of three ways:

n The insurance racket: In safe districts, the sheer size of some incumbents’ campaign funds intimidates potential challengers. Or ...

n The influence racket: Donors know they’re buying access to members of Congress who are sure to win the election – a tacit assurance that the contribution is money well-invested. Or ...

n The slush fund in waiting: The Jacksons bought a cozy lifestyle with surplus money that, although supposedly isolated in campaign accounts, in fact was burning a hole in the congressman’s pocket. The long-running and diabolical nature of their scheme suggests they felt entitled to do whatever they pleased with money that was all but unnecessary for Jackson’s minimalist 2nd Congressional District campaigns.

No, gerrymandering didn’t drive the ex-congressman to a life of crime. Gerrymandering did, though, enable it.

With no viable opposition, he had little need to buy expensive TV time – and, to be frank, he had fewer pesky journalists going line by line through his campaign finance reports. More scrutiny might have detected questionable spending patterns.

The corrupt if legal packing of congressional (and state legislative) districts to make them safe for either major party is an Illinois problem and a national problem. The political research website Ballotpedia reports that only 14.5 percent of all U.S. House races, or 63 of 435, were decided by 10 percentage points or less in 2012: The average Democratic victory margin was 35.7 percent; the Republican average was 28.6 percent.

Think about those huge margins of insulation. Think too about how voters in only one of every seven districts got to choose their U.S. representatives in genuinely competitive races.

Why? Because pols in Illinois and many other states rigged the majority of races to all but guarantee victory to one party or the other. Often the candidates don’t even matter, just the D or R after their names.

And on goes the protection game. Voters in the new district drawn to insulate Jackson are less than a week from learning who likely will replace him. Whichever Democrat emerges from the Tuesday special primary is a heavy favorite to win the April 9 general election.

That Democratic victor may never have to face serious competition again – at least until the next redistricting after the 2020 federal census. He or she will live out this decade with a tremendous advantage: a district drawn by one party, to benefit one party.

Not that an incumbent blessed by gerrymandering can’t find ways to squander a nearly sure thing.

Right, Mr. Jackson?

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