CHICAGO – U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who has largely avoided the public eye of late, said in a rare interview Saturday that he is a public servant, not a perfect one, and didn't rule out a future run at higher office.
Jackson, who has been dogged by links to the corruption case against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and questions about his own relationship with a female "social acquaintance," told The Associated Press that he continually struggles with his "personal shortcomings."
That includes mending his family relationships over the "immensely personal matter" of the female acquaintance and assessing his political ambitions, which once included Chicago mayor or U.S. senator.
"Every one of us has erred in their personal lives and while I don't claim to be a perfect servant, I'm a public servant," Jackson told the AP. "Often times we carry with us the burdens of our personal shortcomings even as we struggle to articulate and clarify a message that helps other people. That what I dedicated my life to."
The congressman spoke to the AP after delivering a rousing Christmas message to hundreds of detainees at Cook County Boot Camp along with his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was an unusual public appearance for the congressman.
He has repeatedly denied interview requests since 2008, when Blagojevich was charged with trying to auction off President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, and Jackson acknowledged that he was named in the criminal complaint as a potential Senate candidate.
During the trial, prosecutors said the state's former international trade director told them Jackson was at a meeting where a businessman discussed fundraising for Blagojevich and Jackson's desire for the seat. Also, Blagojevich's brother, Robert, testified that the same businessman had offered to raise up to $6 million in exchange for Jackson's appointment.
Jackson hasn't been charged and has denied wrongdoing. But political experts say his political future could hinge on the outcome of Blagojevich's corruption retrial in April. The former governor, who denied wrongdoing, was convicted earlier this year on one count of lying to the FBI.
Asked if he was worried about the political fallout of the retrial, he said, "Preparing a case against Blagojevich is not a case against me."
"I entered public life to provide people with jobs. I have not deviated from that mission one day in 15 years," he said. "The people of my district have responded by re-electing me."
When asked if he'll seek higher office, Jackson said, "I'm honored to be in public service."
Earlier this year, after Jackson's name surfaced as a possible contender to replace the retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a businessman, who mentioned the $6 million, told the FBI that Jackson asked him to buy plane tickets for a woman to visit Jackson.
Both Jackson and his wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, acknowledged Jackson's relationship with the woman.
"It was an immensely personal matter for us, which my wife and I handled in the privacy of our home," the congressman told AP. "We've accepted responsibility of being public people that there are elements of my life that play out in public. . . . I'm grateful for a loving wife and loving family."
The impact of the "social acquaintance" and Blagojevich connections were undeniable on the campaign trail this year. Even though Jackson easily won the largely black and mainly Democratic district, his Republican challenger — who made the Jackson scandals the center of his campaign — got attention for the first time in recent memory.
Jackson also faced criticism from voters over the female acquaintance and from community leaders and Republican opponent Isaac Hayes for not showing his face enough in the district. Jackson didn't even hold an Election Night party in November after he won an eighth full congressional term with 80 percent of the vote, opting to make brief appearances at other politicians' parties.
The congressman, who first won his seat in a special election in 1995, dismissed the criticism. He has said he will continue his pet project of trying to bring a third airport to the Chicago area.
Saturday's event, where he spoke alongside his father, fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and prominent Chicago clergy, was a glimpse into the younger Jackson's once highly visible political persona. He was a national co-chair of the Obama presidential campaign.
Speaking with the charismatic style often associated with his civil rights icon father, Jackson gave a wide-ranging address quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and discussing education, the economy, jobs and even imperfection.
He told the detainees: "Everybody's falling short of the glory of God."