Mystery Surrounds Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Absence From Congress

Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has not been seen around Congress for more than a month now, in that time speculation has been rampant in the political press  as to what might have happened to the Congress. There have been rumors of medical issues, drug or alcohol problems, and even a suicide attempt. Throughout the absence, though, Jackson’s office has refused to comment and that has only caused the questions to continue to mount and now fellow Democrats are calling on him to come clean about what’s going on:

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.”

“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.

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.

Illinois’ Senior Senator Dick Durbin has also called on Jackson to be more forthcoming about what’s going on, as has House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.  And some Capitol Hill insiders are saying that Jackson’s absence could be long, if not permanent:

CHICAGO — Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. will likely not return to Congress until after Labor Day, a senior aide close to the congressman told ABC News.

The source also denied a rumor reported on the Chicago WLS talk radio show Roe & Roeper that the Democratic congressman’s mysterious absence was due to a suicide attempt. He claimed to have spoken to Jackson as recently as “the last few days,” and said that although he continues treatment at an inpatient facility, the congressman is not facing any life-threatening ailments.

The source, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, declined to provide any details on where Jackson is seeking treatment, but said that he is genuinely suffering from “exhaustion.”

“That’s what he has. He doesn’t get a lot of sleep and he has sleep disorders. He’s very energetic, running full-steam ahead, working six or seven days a week often and he’s been doing that for a long time,” the source said. “There’s a great deal of pressure on him due to unfounded allegations [related to the ethics inquiry] and negative press onslaught against him that are not true, so it kinda all caught up to him. He needed downtime to get away from grind.”

Jackson’s famous father has said that it’s inappropriate for anyone to ask for details about his son’s condition, but as The Washington Post‘s Aaron Blake points out, a no-comment strategy just isn’t going to work:

If recent scandals in the House have taught us anything, it’s that you simply can’t say something bizarre, leave open questions about it, and hope everyone just moves on. The appetite to learn exactly what happened is just too strong.

Recent examples of this include Reps. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.), Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), David Wu (D-Ore.) and Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).

In all four cases, something very odd was clearly afoot and the members tried to weather the storm, but their actions and comments (or lack thereof) only fed the beast.

All four men resigned their seats.

This is not to say that Jackson is a part of any kind of scandal, as these other members were; we simply don’t know yet. He’s got a very safe seat in Congress, and it’s quite possible that there is a legitimate reason for his decision not to be forthcoming about his undefined “physical and emotional ailments.”

But the fact that Jackson’s seat is safe makes his lack of candor all the more odd. If it’s not that bad, why didn’t he just come out with it and be done with it, knowing that he’s already won his party’s nomination and, barring major scandal, will be re-elected?


Something strange is happening with Jackson. And the attention it’s getting is compounded by his famous father of the same name and the fact that this is not the first time there have been questions about his conduct (these also include rumors of an affair and allegations that he tried to buy President Obama’s Senate seat by raising money for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich).

The longer he waits, the more untenable it gets. That’s why his Democratic colleagues are publicly asking for answers; they don’t need the distraction.

Like I said, the rumors are swirling on the Hill, and none of them are painting Jackson in a very pleasant light. There are even allegations that the entire episode has been staged to divert attention from the ethics scandal and the fact that a close associate of Jackson’s was arrested by the FBI on bribery charges only days before Jackson was last present for a session of Congress. Whether there are connections or not, people are already speculating about them, and the fact that Jackson’s fellow Democrats are the ones calling on him or his family explain what’s going on here suggests that they don’t want to be anywhere near the situation should it all blow up in Jackson’s face in the coming weeks.  Jackson may indeed be suffering from physical or mental ailments at this time, and he obviously ought to be getting treatment for those without having to worry about the political world, but someone needs to realize that his constituents, and his fellow Democrats deserve some information, and they should come forward on his behalf.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    Feditis or Fedaphobia.

  2. rudderpedals says:

    This is why we have a free press. Get to work, people.

  3. Gustopher says:

    He is busy fighting crime in his superhero persona. Batgirl was a congresscritter at one point… Maybe Jesse Jackson Jr is secretly Batgirl!

  4. Neil Hudelson says:

    You know the difference between Jackson’s controversy and the rest cited? The other 4 at least still were around to do their job until they resigned. It seems to me that the most important factor is his constituents aren’t being represented, and do not know when they can expect representation.

    If Jackson has a true controversy he’s dealing with, time won’t make it go away.

    If it is a health issue, his constituents have a right to know at least when they can expect to have a person representing them in Congress.

  5. @Neil Hudelson:

    As I’ve mentioned several times before, there’s a general problem with congress people feeling entitled to disappear from the jobs for months at a time and expecting the position to be held for them. They were hired to do a specific job, and if they can’t do it, they need to be replaced with someone who can, even if that ends up being personally tragic for them.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    One issue is that Jackson’s district has been moved to cover more farm country; its still probably a reliable Democratic seat absent an embarrassing scandal, but not as reliable as previous years. And Jackson has a Republican opponent in November.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I wish Rep. Jackson nothing but the best and hope for his speedy recovery. That having been said I think that John Kass is onto something when he notes the tremendous coincidence in Rep. Jackson announcing his leave of absence the day after the filing deadline for running for Congress. Important as his health is his constituents should priority; they deserve representation.

    I’m also surprised that a 47 year old man would suffer from from physical exhaustion and emotional collapse from attending meetings and going to fundraisers without some underlying pathology, even at the hectic pace of a Congressional representative. Sid Yates was maintaining that schedule into his 80s.

    The Democratic congressional leadership is now urging Rep. Jackson to explain his absence in more detail. It’s not just idle curiosity or vying for partisan gain.

  8. @Dave Schuler.

    Out of curiosity, how easy would it be for the Illinois Democratic Party to replace Jackson on the November ballot were he to drop out?

  9. PD Shaw says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I think the process is easy. The Democratic precinct chairman in his district would just have to meet and choose a replacement. I’m not sure of the deadline though; early voting begins October 15.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    I meant “chairmen”

    The deadline might be August. Here is the Wikipedia entry of when Lipinski resigned at the last minute to make way for his son to take his spot:

    The district’s seat changed hands under somewhat controversial circumstances in 2004. Lipinski was renominated in the primary election, but in August announced his intention to withdraw from the race, just two weeks before the deadline for replacing a candidate on the ballot. Four days later, the district’s ward and township committeemen – including Lipinski himself as well as Mayor Daley’s brother John and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan – met to choose a replacement; Lipinski nominated his son Dan, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, and he was approved without opposition despite not having lived in Illinois since 1989.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    Jackson’s major burden has always been his father. My impression has always been that:
    – His father is an a**hole
    – Junior would have never gone into politics except his daddy pushed him constantly (and everyone else in his vicinity)
    – Both their hands are always in the till, just this side of legal perhaps (perhaps!) but incredibly unseemly.

    Neither of the Jackson’s ever met a scandal involving any random black person and a corporation that couldn’t be ‘solved’ by said corporation hiring Jackson or Junior as a ‘consultant’ to help them address their racial ‘issues’. The issues, in most cases, being that the Jackson Two would otherwise be showing up on TV to lambaste that company.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    Here is an article on how to replace Jackson:

    Since the Nov. 6 election is less than 180 days away, it’s too late to hold a special election, said Ken Menzel, deputy general counsel of the Illinois Board of Elections. However, if Jackson resigns as a candidate as late as 15 days before the election, he can be replaced on the ballot.

    A new candidate would be chosen at a meeting of the 2nd District’s Democratic Party county chairmen. Each chairman would have a number of votes equal to the votes cast by his county in the primary. Since Cook County cast 88.6 percent of the votes in the 2nd District primary, Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios would have complete control of the process.

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    My read is that one of the reasons we’re hearing concern expressed by House leaders is that they don’t want to lose the seat. If Rep. Jackson can’t mount an effective campaign for health reasons, since the district boundaries have changed and there is an opposing Republican candidate, it’s barely possible they could lose it.

  14. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    According to NBC, it’s no mystery — JJ Jr. is getting dried out in Arizona.

  15. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    The plot thickens. It turns out that a key fundraiser for Jesse Jr. has been arrested by the FBI for major bribery charges, and Jackson himself is facing a House ethics probe. In the midst of all this, Jackson apparently heads to Arizona for treatment for alcoholism and/or “addiction” issues.

    I hope he brought his ID with him.