Opponents Remind Voters Jesse Jackson Jr. Is MIA

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is still running for office but has been out of sight for months. He is being treated for a bipolar disorder, and his wife says he will return to work when he gets his physician's permission. Three other candidates are campaigning for the seat.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, with the election just a little more than a month away, some members of Congress are campaigning nonstop - but not Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. The congressman from Chicago is being treated for bipolar disorder, and has been out of sight for months. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: During this election season, here's a voice we haven't heard in the 2nd District race for Congress, in Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRIMARY RACE AD)

REP. JESSE JACKSON JR: President Obama and I are working together, fighting for good jobs paying good wages...

CORLEY: That's congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., in a radio commercial that aired last spring during the primary season. There have been no commercials recently; instead, a nearly four-month absence for Jackson. In August, his office revealed that Jackson was being treated for bipolar disorder. Last week, his wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, appeared at her birthday party and fundraiser. She told WLS-TV, in Chicago, that Jackson will return to work when he gets his physician's OK.

SANDI JACKSON: He's on the ballot, and he's going to stay on the ballot. We're not making any sudden changes; we're not making any new moves. Everything is still very much dependent upon his doctor's decision.

CORLEY: Jackson is reportedly convalescing at his home in Washington, D.C. - a home that was put on the market to pay medical bills, according to his aides, and then taken off; fueling speculation about the congressman's plans.

BRIAN WOODWORTH: This is just the icing on the cake. You know, he stopped representing us four or five years ago.

CORLEY: Republican Brian Woodworth, an adjunct professor and attorney, is running against Jackson. He says the congressman began making himself scarce after allegations that he offered to raise funds for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in exchange for the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Obama. A House ethics committee is investigating. Jackson has said his name will be cleared. Even so, Woodworth says Jackson has not been representing the district, and people are frustrated.

WOODWORTH: And it just continues to be one more thing after another; that people are willing to say, you know what? Enough is enough. How much more do we have to put up with before we're done with this?

CORLEY: In addition to Woodworth, there are two other candidates, an independent and a write-in. In politically intense Chicago, some speculate that Jackson will run and win the seat, and then step down and help an ally win a special election. Others wonder if Jackson is re-elected, how long it would be before he'd actually returns to work. Jackson first won a special election in 1995, and he's been re-elected by wide margins ever since. Political analyst Laura Washington says that's a trend that's likely to continue since the district, newly redrawn, is still overwhelmingly Democratic.

LAURA WASHINGTON: But his campaign is, really, a sham if he's not going to present his credentials to the voters, if he's not going to stand for election. I think he still has a responsibility to do that - or at least send some kind of a message that he intends to come back, and present an agenda. And he hasn't done that, since June.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CORLEY: I'm at 73rd and Coles in the South Shore neighborhood, just a few blocks away from congressman Jesse Jackson's house, talking to voters in the district.

JASMINE DUCKETT: I think he needs to, you know, just sit back; don't let the - you know, the race and all of that get to him too bad; just - focus on his health.

CORLEY: Twenty-one-year old Jasmine Duckett works at a convenience store, and plans to vote for Jackson. Ruthie Stewart is also a supporter.

RUTHIE STEWART: He has a right to be treated, and I think he can function being treated.

CORLEY: As a congressman?

STEWART: As a congressman.

CORLEY: Further south, in Homewood, Illinois, shoppers coming out of a home improvement center were just a few minutes away from congressman Jackson's suburban office.

ALICE DICKEN: Is Jesse running again?

CORLEY: Alice Dicken, a certified nurse's assistant, said she hadn't heard. But Dicken said Jackson should decide himself, if he can return to work.

DICKEN: You know, if he's able to do the job. You can't ostracize him just because he's got a mental health issue - 'cause millions of us do, and we still go about our everyday life.

CORLEY: Tom Losh, with his wife, Jill, and their young son, said he's less concerned about Jackson's bipolar disorder, and more interested in the House ethics investigation.

TOM LOSH: Once you start getting into things like that, it kind of puts a little doubt in people's minds about your credibility, you know. So there again, you know, he needs to overcome all these negatives he's got going against him.

CORLEY: Even though Jackson isn't out stumping for votes, an aide says his campaign has been registering voters, and will soon switch to get-out-the-vote efforts.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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