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The Real Victims of Jesse Jackson Jr.'s Fall From Grace

With former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. sentenced to 30 months in prison for stealing campaign funds, the consensus is that his story is one of personal tragedy—what happens when a promising figure becomes overconfident and engulfed by ambition. Legally, Jackson Jr. is only guilty of embezzling $750,000 from his campaign coffers to redecorate his Washington home. But his implosion has been taking place in slow motion for several years now, and so in our cultural imagination, he is guilty of getting too big for his britches—of treating his Chicago-area Congressional seat like it was his property, of bringing a devil-may-care attitude toward his duties, and of wanting Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat so badly that he prostituted his fundraising abilities to former Governor Rod Blagojevich. The Fix, this morning, under the headline “What Jesse Jackson Jr. Meant to Politics,” is holding Jackson Jr. forth as a cautionary tale for other rising stars: “His story is a reminder of how quickly everything can come crashing down in politics. And the bigger you are, the harder you fall.”

In court yesterday, both Jackson Jr.’s lawyer and his prosecutor framed their reaction to his sentence in these same terms. Matt Graves, the assistant U.S. attorney in the case, bemoaned Jackson Jr.’s "wasted talent" and "what he threw away." Reid Weingarten, Jackson’s attorney, emphasized the personal nature of his fall from grace by way of pointing out that Jackson Jr. had only taken money from his own campaign funds: “It's not as if there are widows and orphans outside the courthouse who are victims and asking for his head, Weingarten said. ‘This is not Madoff. This is not a Ponzi scheme,’ the lawyer said.” 

The rest of us often talk about disgraced politicians like this too—as if the consequences touch only the headline-maker himself, his potential for higher office, and the family members and coattail-riders in his inner circle. Rarely in focus are the people he was actually elected to serve.

That is particularly sinful in the case of Jackson Jr., who wasn’t any ordinary representative, and didn’t represent just any old district. As Jason Zengerle wrote last November, in his in-depth treatment of Jackson Jr.’s rise and fall:

He was a stickler about making votes, missing not one during his first thirteen years in Congress. ... He fought for and won a seat on the Appropriations Committee and began bringing buckets of federal dollars back to his district. John Schmidt, a prominent Chicago lawyer, recalls a meeting with Jesse Jr. when Schmidt was running for governor in 1998. Jackson wanted to give him a tour of his district, and Schmidt had budgeted a couple of hours; the tour wound up taking the whole day. “He knew his congressional district at the level an alderman knows his ward,” Schmidt says.

Jackson Jr.’s district morphed over the years to include outer-south Chicago suburbs of substantial affluence. But its core remained poor, black Southside neighborhoods. Yes, knowing his district top-to-bottom, and larding it with patronage dollars, was a part of Jackson’s effort to build a lean and bruising political machine to launch him to higher office. But no one can deny that as Jackson Jr. angled for the Senate, he was also striving to use his sinecure to improve the blighted neighborhoods that had chosen him as their representative.

When Jackson’s shattered ambitions and untreated bipolar disorder began to consume him, you better believe these areas shared in the tragedy. I reported on this last October when writing about the surreality of a race with an absent frontrunner:

Those for whom Jackson’s absence is not so farcical are his deserted constituents. Take Jerry Brown, a 58-year-old retired AT&T technician. Brown lives in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood, one of the areas most affected by the city’s unbridled violence. In April, Brown was robbed and beaten with a pistol by five boys—they were all under the age of 18—in front of his home. For him, the attack was a perfect focal point for everything wrong with his congressman. Once, Jackson could be counted on to bring home the bacon to his district; lately, Jackson had brought home hardly any money to finance the local hospitals that treats victims of violence like Brown. The staff member Jackson had dispatched to Brown’s chapter of the Parent Leadership in Action Network—a state program to help parents disrupt youth violence—was disinterested, non-committal, and unresponsive. Jackson wasn’t even making use of his bully pulpit anymore to address intensifying crime.

“I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box, but I take good notes with the pencils that I have,” Brown told me. “You can look around and see that things aren’t getting done.”

Jackson Jr.’s story is not just one of climb and fall, or, as Sean Sullivan puts it for The Fix, “the story of a pol who rapidly ascended the political ladder only to fall quickly and dramatically from public grace.” Jackson rose, in part, because he intimately understood the needs of a particularly needy community. It will be a long time before these neighborhoods have such a powerful advocate again. His constituents will bear the brunt of the crimes that put him in jail, and the illness that thwarted his dreams.

Sadly, the only person who reflected on this Wednesday was the judge who was handing down Jackson Jr.'s sentence. "You stand here not just because you violated the law, but because you violated the trust of the people of Chicago," said Judge Amy Berman. And then, oddly enough, she spoke apiece on his record of public service. "That's what makes this situation so tragic."

Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.