Questions mount over Jackson Jr.'s absence

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s mysterious disappearance from public life led to new calls by Illinois Democrats on Tuesday for him to give voters more information about his condition.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez on Tuesday became the second high-profile Chicago Democrat to demand that Jackson be more candid. Gutierrez, who has been a rival of Jackson’s, said the congressman “has a responsibility to give us more information.”

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“I’m not demanding that information,” Gutierrez told the Chicago Tribune. “But I think the people of his congressional district deserve it. The people of Illinois deserve it. If he’s going to stand for reelection, you guys are going to demand it.”

Jackson, a nine-term Illinois Democrat, last appeared on Capitol Hill in early June. His office has issued two statements since then indicating he's on medical leave — the first citing “exhaustion” and the second suggesting his condition is much more severe.

The strange episode has fueled speculation about Jackson's condition and whereabouts. An almost total absence of information — his congressional office will not answer any questions — has created abundant space for rumor and the most extreme conjecture.


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This has been stoked by an ethics investigation into allegations that Jackson considered lending campaign favors to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in exchange for the Senate seat then being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Monday that Jackson should be more candid about his condition and provide specifics about his health “soon.”


“As a public official, there comes a point when you have a responsibility to tell the public what’s going on,” Durbin said at an event in Chicago. “If there is some medical necessity for him not to say more at this moment, then I will defer to that. But he will have to soon make a report on what he’s struggling with."

Gutierrez delivered a similar message on Tuesday.

“I know that we want to say that we have private lives, and I do have a private life. I also have a public life,” Gutierrez said, according to the Tribune. “If I don’t show up to work, then I need to give — I don’t have this immunity of this shield of privacy — because it’s about my job. And any time I haven’t shown up to work, I’ve given you a clear answer about why it was I wasn’t there.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), however, defended Jackson on Tuesday, saying the office updates on his medical condition — however vague — should satisfy the people he represents.

“We all have a responsibility to report to our constituents,” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday. “They [Jackson's aides] have certainly reported that he is ill and seeking help. And I think that that fulfills that responsibility.”

Hoyer noted that another Illinois lawmaker, GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, has also been on an extended medical leave, after he suffered a stroke in January.

“I hope that Jesse is able to return in the short term, just as I hope that Mark Kirk is also able to return in the short term,” said Hoyer, who spoke with Jackson's family several weeks ago about the Democrat's condition.

Jackson’s office has released little specific information about the congressman’s health and whereabouts.

A statement issued by his office on June 26 indicated that he'd been on medical leave for “exhaustion” since June 10.

A second statement issued last Thursday added to the mystery, indicating that Jackson's condition is “more serious than we thought and initially believed.”

“Recently, we have been made aware that he has grappled with certain physical and emotional ailments privately for a long period of time,” Jackson spokesman Frank Watkins said in the statement. “At present, he is undergoing further evaluation and treatment at an inpatient medical facility.”

Jackson's family has also been largely silent throughout the episode. On Tuesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the lawmaker's father and a former Democratic presidential hopeful, told a Chicago television station that it would be “inappropriate” to reveal the details of his son's condition now.

“I speak as a father,” the elder Jackson told an NBC affiliate. “During this pain, as he comes out of his crisis, we will be with him. And we hope that he'll be fully restored to his health. Right now, he's going through a tremendous challenge.”

“I’m gratified with some of the people calling in and praying and offering their prayers and at some appropriate time there will be a fuller disclosure,” he added.

Meanwhile, there are strong hints that most of Jackson's Democratic colleagues — including some in leadership — remain in the dark about his condition.

“I know far less than Sen. Durbin,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday. “Right now, the best thing I can tell you is that we're all hoping that we're going to see Congressman Jackson sooner than later.