Jackson’s absence tests patience in hometown

In April, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (left) was still feeling good enough to tour a Ford plant in Chicago Heights with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, but now more than three months have passed since he took a medical leave.

CHICAGO — His home in Washington is for sale. His wife said he’ll come back to work only when a doctor approves. He vowed to return to the campaign by Labor Day, a deadline that came and went.

Election Day is five weeks away, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. remains out of sight.

It’s an absence, from his job in Congress and from his campaign, that is starting to test patience in his Chicago hometown.

More than three months have passed since Jackson disappeared, initially a mystery that was later revealed to be a hospitalization for severe depression and gastrointestinal problems. There have been few updates on his condition and no hard answers to questions about his future.

All that aides will say is that Jackson’s name is still on the ballot, even though he has yet to make a campaign appearance since last spring’s primary. His wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, has tried to say nothing at all. When pressed, she insists she won’t step in to take his place.

“You ask anyone in this district, which one of them could take 90 days off of work?” said Jackson opponent Brian Woodworth, a college professor and Republican running what remains a longshot campaign in a mostly South Side district that is heavily Democratic.

“Voters should be paying attention to this,” Woodworth said. “For the last three months, almost four, he’s ignored them. He’s hidden from the press. He’s ignored the people. He’s neglected his job.”

The criticism isn’t only coming from the GOP. Editorial writers who urged patience weeks ago now are urging Jackson to explain his intentions. In his district, constituents who have expressed a range of reactions to his absence are growing more anxious to hear from him.

Jacques Whatley, 39, said she has voted for Jackson in the past, but her views have turned as weeks have gone by without any word from the congressman.

“When there are situations like this, we need to know,” Whatley said. “If he has some medical issues, then he should step down. If you’re in a situation where you’re not healthy, then you need time off.”

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Jackson is recovering at the same time as Sen. Mark Kirk, who suffered a stroke this year. Kirk also has not appeared in public, but the Republican is not up for re-election and has released a series of videos that show him slowly learning to walk again and talking about government issues, at times in a halting voice.

Jackson, 47, returned to his Washington home this month after leaving the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He started a medical leave June 10, but his staff only announced it publicly two weeks later and didn’t initially reveal where he was or the illness from which he was suffering.

The son of a civil rights icon, Jackson was expected to breeze to re-election after easily defeating a primary opponent in a district that now extends from south Chicago into portions of two rural counties. In recent days, when asked about the general election, Jackson’s office has only said that he remains on the ballot.

“He’s still at home under a doctor’s care,” said spokesman Frank Watkins.

Publicly, most Illinois Democrats have kept quiet about Jackson’s situation. Jackson’s father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, has declined to speak in detail. The congressman’s wife has mostly dodged reporters at City Council meetings and a recent birthday party and fundraiser.