CHICAGO — Residents in this swath of sprawling Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs have brimmed with loyalty to Jesse Jackson Jr. over the past 17 years, giving him an enthusiastic majority each election — even after questionable links to ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, reports of an extramarital affair and a bizarre five-month medical leave.
But the former congressman’s guilty plea to charges that he lived off and lavishly spent campaign money for personal use — from toilet paper to mink capes — has turned the tide. In territory where it was difficult to scrape up any criticism of Jackson, his Chicago alderman wife or his famous civil rights leader father, the mood is now simply one of disappointment.
“He knew better; it was a very stupid thing to do,” said 75-year-old Jeannette Reese, shaking her head as she grocery-shopped at a busy shopping complex. “He and his father came to our church. I thought he was the real thing.”
Jackson, who resigned from office in November, pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Washington to criminal charges that he engaged in a scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items. He faces up to 57 months — more than four years — in prison and a fine, under a plea deal with prosecutors.
It was an emotional day for Jackson, 47, who held back tears as he addressed the federal judge, just hours before his wife pleaded guilty to filing false joint federal income tax returns that knowingly understated the income the couple received. Sandi Jackson, who resigned from Chicago’s City Council last month, faces up to two years in prison and a fine.
“I did these things,” Jesse Jackson Jr. told the judge, adding later, “Sir, for years I lived in my campaign.”
He first won office in a 1995 special election and developed widespread support from mayors who said he delivered and constituents who valued his family legacy and said he gave them a voice. That support persevered even through an intense primary challenge last year from former one-term U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson who made Jackson’s ethical troubles central to her campaign. He came away with the easy majority even as he remained under a House Ethics Committee investigation for ties to Blagojevich, who’s serving a federal prison sentence on allegations that he tried to profit from President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate Seat.
Even the most loyal Jackson supporters who praised him for bringing home nearly $1 billion in federal funding to the district were rattled.
“I hate that circumstances ended up like they did,” said Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin. His small community south of Chicago — one of Illinois’ poorest — got a boost in its water system because of Jackson.
Still, Griffin did not want to pile on criticism. “His situation is between the court system and the family,” the mayor said.
Next week, voters in the heavily Democratic district head to the polls in a special primary to replace him. The crowded field of candidates includes Halvorson, former state Rep. Robin Kelly and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale.
Jackson is scheduled to be sentenced June 28 and his wife on July 1. Both Jacksons, who maintain homes in Washington and Chicago, are free until sentencing.
More details emerged in a 22-page statement compiled by prosecutors and filed Wednesday. In it, Jackson admitted that he and his wife used campaign credit cards to buy thousands of personal items worth $582,772.58 from 2005 through April of last year. The most lavish purchases included the spending of more than $43,000 on a gold-plated men’s Rolex watch.
Court papers said more than $60,000 was shelled out for restaurant, nightclub and lounge outings. Money was also spent on a washer, a dryer, a range and a refrigerator for the Jacksons’ Chicago home.
Jackson even arranged for the use of campaign money to buy two mounted elk heads for his congressional office, according to court documents.
Jackson entered the courtroom Wednesday holding hands with his wife and looking a bit dazzled as he surveyed the packed room. He kissed his wife and headed to the defense table.
After the hearing he shouted to a reporter: “Tell everybody back home I’m sorry I let them down, OK?”
The Chicago Democrat disappeared from the public eye last June for a medical leave, though details on his condition and location were always scarce. Doctors later said he suffers from bipolar disorder and was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
His attorney said after the court appearance that Jackson’s health is “not an excuse” for his actions, “just a fact.” Jackson’s father has said that his son remains under strict medical supervision.
One attorney, Reid Weingarten, told reporters after the hearing that there’s reason for optimism.
“A man that talented, a man that devoted to public service, a man who’s done so much for so many, has another day,” he said. “There will be another chapter in Jesse Jackson’s life.”
Associated Press writers Frederic J. Frommer and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.