Race to fill Jackson’s seat highlights new challenges for the Black Caucus

The race to replace former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) is throwing a spotlight on new electoral challenges facing the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

The Illinois race is the first real test of whether open-seat elections in expanded, more diverse districts are still likely to elect African-Americans to Congress. 

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Because of dwindling urban populations, less segregated neighborhoods and a fast-growing Hispanic population, many districts where African-American politicians have been all but guaranteed a win are no longer as secure.

The CBC ranks will hold steady in 2012 at 42 members, and they will grow if Jackson’s replacement is black. 

But after four decades in which the CBC’s ranks swelled, the caucus is in a more precarious position. Many of its seats are held by longtime members whose eventual retirements could open the door for a white or Hispanic politician.

CBC members like Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) easily won primaries in newly drawn districts, and incoming Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) handily won a seat to replace his father in Congress. 

But Rangel, Conyers and a number of other CBC members are from less heavily African-American districts than in the past, and their eventual replacement is not guaranteed to be black. 

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), for example, is in her mid-70s and currently represents a district that has a large number of Hispanic voters.

A CBC spokeswoman said the organization has no plans to get involved in the Jackson race, and a spokesman for the group’s political action committee could not be reached. 

But one prominent CBC member is likely to get involved. A spokesman for Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) indicated he’s likely to endorse one of the African-American candidates in the Democratic primary.

“The congressman is concerned about the community being able to have a real choice in who would best represent them in the tradition of the representation they’ve had over these past years,” Ira Cohen, a spokesman for Davis, told The Hill. “He is looking at who is interested in running and will make a decision at some point about a candidate that he feels is consistent with that kind of representation.”

Jackson’s old district, like many heavily African-American districts, was expanded during the redistricting process into the suburbs and took in more white voters. 

The seat is expected to remain in Democratic hands — Jackson won reelection in November by a wide margin, despite not campaigning. 

While the district had long been confined to Chicago’s South Side, it now stretches to exurban Kankakee, more than an hour from the city. 

Jackson easily dispatched white former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-Ill.) in the 2012 primary. She’s running again — and a crowded Democratic field is boosting her chances at returning to Congress.

Halvorson took less than a third of the vote against Jackson in 2012. But in a late-February primary where few are expected to vote, she has a better shot at turning out her suburban base and pulling off a win.

When asked whether she was worried about the city/suburban and racial divides in the race, Halvorson downplayed those concerns.

“We are focused on getting our message out to everyone in the special election,” she told The Hill via email. 

“We are talking about our proven record and competencies and how we are the only candidate that is ready to deliver on day one for all people.”

Halvorson is one of a half-dozen candidates running for the seat. 

The other apparent front-runners are Illinois state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D), an African-American woman who was once Halvorson’s chief of staff and hails from the suburbs; and state Sen. Donne Trotter (D). 

Trotter has the support of much of Chicago’s political machine but is dealing with an ongoing scandal after he attempted to fly to Washington, D.C., with an unloaded handgun in his carry-on bag. 

Others in the race include former state Rep. Robin Kelly (D) and former NFL player and newly elected state Sen. Napoleon Harris (D).

Just one-third of the district’s voters live in Chicago, though the proportion of Chicago voters is considerably higher in a Democratic primary. 

The field of candidates could also still grow, as the filing deadline hasn’t been reached yet. 

Trotter was initially viewed as a front-runner for the race, but his legal troubles might have already hurt his campaign. 

His backers failed to deliver him an endorsement last weekend at a local Democratic leadership meeting, despite one of the group’s main players being firmly in his corner. He also will have to appear in court on gun charges before the primary, creating a further distraction.

Trotter has also been critical of President Obama in the past, though he later became a strong Obama backer. 

When he ran against Obama and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in 2000, Trotter said many in the black community viewed the then-professor as “the white man in blackface.”

Halvorson also faces some problems in a Democratic primary, mostly stemming from her representing a GOP-leaning district during her time in Congress. 

She voted against some Wall Street regulations and was previously endorsed by the National Rifle Association’s political action committee. 

Hutchinson has also received high scores from the NRA, which could hurt her as well, considering the sudden prominence of gun control in the national political dialogue and its outsize importance in Chicago, where gang violence is a serious problem.