Bi-Polar Disorder on Trial in Race for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s 2nd District...

Bi-Polar Disorder on Trial in Race for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s 2nd District Seat


On Monday the wildest, loudest and likely most interesting race of 2013 will open with a bang, just in time for the holidays. When Jesse Jackson Jr. announced last Wednesday that he would resign from the House of Representatives, a little less than 2 weeks after winning re-election and after almost 4 months of being MIA to deal with his bi-polar disorder the clock began ticking for when his potential successors would start to show up. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has until Monday to announce when the special election will be held (within 115 days) to replace Jackson. On the surface this election is about representation, in many ways the next Representative from the 2nddistrict will hinge on the public’s attitudes towards bi-polar disorder.

There are two ways to look at the last few months of the Jesse Jackson Jr. legacy in Congress, one forgiving and accepting, the other angry and cynical. Both have to do with how one views bi-polar disorder. One view is that Jesse Jackson Jr. was never a particularly stellar member of Congress. He was living off of his father’s reputation, and was neither a great success nor a dismal failure. His greatest mistake was getting involved in the pay to play scandal with the rest of the Chicago crew, because while he is certainly no more dirty than the rest of the players, he should’ve known that as a black man, and the son of Jesse Jackson he was going to be under increased scrutiny. This cynical view of Jackson, also extends to his leave of absence from Congress and bi-polar disorder. There are some who find his illness to be a tad convenient given the raft of charges hanging over his head for ethics violations. His announcement of suffering from bi-polar disorder yet still waiting around to get re-elected is akin to the old Italian mob boss in the movies who pretends he’s crazy just long enough to be declared mentally unfit to stand trial for racketeering. If you are in this camp then the Jackson legacy is done, and the district will have entirely new leadership that will be as free from the Jackson influence as Obama was when he ran for office in 2008. However there is another take on this story.

If you take Jackson, as well as Reps Danny Davis and Bobby Rush at their word this is a serious situation. Jesse Jr. is suffering immensely and feels  a tremendous amount of shame and disappointment in his own behavior. Bi-Polar disorder can lead to some incredibly erratic behavior, financially, socially and professionally. Two of my favorite writers and public intellectuals, incredibly talented women Danielle Belton (The Blacksnob blog) and Melody Moezzi have written extensively about the fact that seemingly normal functional people suffering from various forms of bi-polar disorder can engage in behavior that seems corrupt, or selfish or immoral but they really can’t help themselves. Consequently those who view Jackson with sympathy or even empathy might consider his words to still have some power in the district and thus he might play a role in finding his successor. The catch is, which of these two narratives most accurately reflects the feelings of the men and women voting in the 2nd district?

In the next few weeks there is going to be a mad dash to run for a seat that seems like an easy job for life for many Democrats in Illinois (and yes Republicans too – it happened to Anthony Weiner’s old seat it could happen here). Whether the seat stays in Democratic hands has a lot to do with what voters believe about bi-polar disorder and the legitimacy of Jackson’s actions over the last year. Let’s just hope that these are informed opinions and not based on stereotypes or prejudice.


  1. Obviously, voters in Jackson, Jr.’s district didn’t hold his health issues against him by electing him to another term. In this sense, bipolar disorder isn’t, “on trial”. Neither do I suspect voters will use his various afflictions to rationalize his corrupt behavior. As for the effect his resignation and a probable guilty plea will have on his legacy, I tend to think since he’ll have some indirect influence on the choice of his replacement given he’s built his own mini-machine of local elected officials inside his district.