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Jackson race is revving up

Updated: January 13, 2012 8:09AM

No need for caffeine in her pomegranate tea. Debbie Halvorson was already plenty pumped over her bid to knock off U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in the March 20 Democratic primary.

We met recently at a downtown tea parlor as Halvorson laid out her strategy for unseating Jackson in his newly redrawn 2nd Congressional District, which spans from Jackson’s base on Chicago’s South Side, to the south suburbs, into Will and Kankakee counties: “I’m getting around to everywhere.”

Since October, she has been hitting the churches, barber and beauty shops and diners in the 7th, 9th and 10th wards. That’s new territory for Halvorson, of south suburban Crete. She had previously represented some of the newest portions of the 2nd District before she lost her own congressional seat in 2008.

“People are very, very upset that they’ve been underserved. And that Jesse has been in hiding, basically, for the last three years.”

Jackson is not delivering jobs and economic development in these hard times, she argues. And his marquee project — a third airport in the south suburbs, has yet to materialize.

Halvorson is buoyed by a new, independent poll of 2nd District voters that shows Jackson leading Halvorson 35 percent to 18 percent. She was unknown to about half of those polled. That’s an opening, she says.

Halvorson was a prolific Mary Kay saleswoman before she took up politics. Now she is selling herself as a constituent friendly politician who is “all about customer service.”

Jackson, a 16-year incumbent, is facing the first serious challenge of his career, thanks to the Rod Blagojevich scandal. On Dec. 2 the U.S. House Ethics Committee announced that it would continue its investigation into whether Jackson or a representative offered to raise $1.5 million for Blagojevich in exchange for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.

Jackson has been “distracted” by the investigation, to the detriment of his district, Halvorson says.

Jackson of course, begs to differ.

In an op-ed he released Friday, Jackson said he has been “mostly silent” about the Blagojevich case, he says, “out of respect for the criminal justice system and other investigative processes.”

He has fully cooperated with the investigations, and assures he’ll be “vindicated.”

“I have said from the beginning that I publicly and transparently sought to have the governor of Illinois appoint me to fulfill the final two years of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s term in the U.S. Senate. I did nothing illegal, unethical or inappropriate.”

The proposed airport is “shovel ready,” Jackson says, and he is pushing Gov. Pat Quinn to sign off on a lease for the land to the airport commission. Jackson says he has brought $920 million in federal largess to the district.

Halvorson wants to smoke Jackson out. “I’m calling for debates,” she says.

To win, she must mount a high-profile, well-financed, take-no-prisoners effort. With plenty of caffeine.

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