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Illinois Democrats leave primary open for Jackson's House seat

By James B. Kelleher

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Democratic ward bosses from Chicago and its suburbs failed on Saturday to endorse a candidate to succeed former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., creating an open primary in February for the vacant Illinois congressional seat.

None of the more than one dozen candidates received enough support from party leaders in the 2nd Congressional District at a meeting on Saturday for the endorsement, which would have given then an edge over others in a potentially crowded field.

Jackson, the son of civil rights leader and former presidential candidate Reverend Jesse Jackson, resigned in November after 17 years in Congress amid a federal ethics probe and concerns over his mental health.

Veteran political observers had said ahead of the meeting that no one had locked up the endorsement, which if delivered could have made a candidate a front-runner, but not guaranteed victor, in the crowded primary fight to replace Jackson.

The district has 428,000 registered voters in Cook, Kankakee and Will counties. Whoever wins the February 26 Democratic primary is almost certain to win the April 9 special general election in the solidly Democratic district.

It remains unclear how many Democrats will run in the primary to replace Jackson. Filing for the race will be open in early January.

The expected candidates include former U.S. Representative Debbie Halvorson, who lost to Jackson in the Democratic primary this year, and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale.

Jesse Jackson Jr.'s wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, has said she would not seek to succeed him.

POLITICAL CLOUT

"Congressional seats in the Chicago area don't come open that often," said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

"People get in and they stay in. So when one comes up, there are a lot of people who want to get in there," Mooney said.

The last Chicago-area congressional vacancy was in 2009, when Rahm Emanuel left the House to become President Barack Obama's chief of staff.

Critics of the slating process said it tends to anoint candidates based on their political clout more than their merit.

Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and now head of the political science department at the University of Illinois, Chicago, called the field of candidates "a pretty reasonable crop in terms of position and background."

They include one candidate with a troubled past, former congressman Mel Reynolds, and another with an uncertain future, state Senator Donne Trotter.

Trotter was arrested in December at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago after he tried to bring a handgun and ammunition onto an airplane - a felony.

Reynolds, who was forced to resign in 1995 after he was convicted of sexual assault and other charges, is running under the slogan, "Redemption."

(Editing by David Bailey, Cynthia Johnston, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Simao)

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