Former state Rep. Robin Kelly easily won the special Democratic primary Tuesday night in the race to replace the disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress, helped by millions of dollars in pro-gun control ads from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's political fund.
A snowstorm and lack of voter interest kept turnout low as Kelly had 52 percent to 25 percent for former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and 11 percent for Chicago 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale with 99 percent of precincts counted.
Kelly will formally take on the winner of the Republican primary in an April 9 special general election in the heavily Democratic district. In the GOP contest, less than 25 votes separated convicted felon Paul McKinley and businessman Eric Wallace.
Kelly framed her win as a victory for gun control forces.
"You sent a message that was heard around our state and across the nation," Kelly told supporters in a Matteson hotel ballroom. "A message that tells the NRA that their days of holding our country hostage are coming to an end.
"To every leader in the fight for gun control ready to work with President (Barack) Obama and Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel to stop this senseless violence, thank you for your leadership and thank you for your courage," she said.
Halvorson told supporters to rally around Kelly as the Democratic nominee. But Halvorson also made it clear she believed her biggest opponent was the mayor of New York, whose anti-gun super political action committee spent more than $2.2 million attacking her previous support from the National Rifle Association while backing Kelly.
"We all know how rough it was for me to have to run an election against someone who spent ($2.2) million against me," Halvorson said at Homewood restaurant. "Every 7½ minutes there was a commercial."
Bloomberg's Independence USA PAC was the largest campaign interest in the race and dominated the Chicago broadcast TV airwaves compared to a marginal buy by one minor candidate.
Beale also called Bloomberg's influence "the biggest disservice in this race."
"If this is the future of the Democratic Party, then we are all in big trouble," Beale said.
Bloomberg, an Emanuel ally in the fight for tougher gun restrictions, called Kelly's win "an important victory for common sense leadership on gun violence" as well as sign that voters "are demanding change" in a Congress that has refused to enact tougher gun restrictions, fearing the influence of the NRA.
But as much as Bloomberg sought to portray the Kelly win as a victory over the influential NRA, the national organization stayed out of the contest completely while the state rifle association sent out one late mailer for Halvorson.
Be it the TV ads or a late consolidation toward Kelly in the campaign, the former Matteson lawmaker made an impressive showing with Democratic voters in suburban Cook County, where the bulk of the district's vote was located, as well as on the South Side.
Despite the size of the field, Kelly got more than half of the votes cast in the two most populated areas of the district. Halvorson won by large percentages over Kelly in Kankakee County and the district's portion of Will County, but those two areas have very few votes.
The special primary election, by its nature, already had been expected to be a low-turnout affair — an expedited contest with little time for contenders to raise money or mount a traditional campaign.
Adding to the lack of interest was the fact that there were no other contests on the ballot in Chicago and most of the suburban Cook County portion of the district. Few contests were being held in Kankakee County and the portion of Will County within the 2nd District.
Turnout was reported to be around 15 percent in the city and suburban Cook. More than 98 percent of the primary votes cast in Chicago were Democratic, as were 97 percent of those cast in suburban Cook.
On the Republican side, the unofficial vote leader was McKinley, 54, who was arrested 11 times from 2003 to 2007, mostly for protesting, with almost all of the charges dropped. In the 1970s and '80s, McKinley was convicted of six felony counts, serving nearly 20 years in prison for burglaries, armed robberies and aggravated battery. He previously declined to discuss the circumstances of those crimes but has dubbed himself the "ex-offender preventing the next offender" in his campaign.
Records show McKinley also owes $14,147 in federal taxes, which might explain his answer at a forum when asked if he would cut any federal programs. "Certainly," he said. "The IRS."
Tuesday's bad weather couldn't wash away the district's sordid history of congressional representation.
Jackson's predecessor, Mel Reynolds, was forced to give up his office in 1995 after being convicted of sex crimes, including having sex with a minor who was a campaign worker. This time, Reynolds launched what turned out to be a failed bid to return to Congress, seeking redemption from Democratic voters.
Reynolds got into office by defeating Gus Savage, who had been accused of sexually accosting a Peace Corps worker during a trip to Zaire.
Virtually all of the 14 active Democrats and four Republicans on the primary ballots pledged to begin a new day for voters in the district.
Initially, 17 Democrats and five Republicans filed for the primary. But three Democrats dropped out, including state Sen. Toi Hutchinson of Olympia Fields, who initially had secured the endorsement of Kelly's most recent boss, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The contest began almost immediately after Jackson's stunning announcement the day before Thanksgiving that he was giving up the seat in Congress to which he had just won re-election, amid a diagnosis of bipolar depression and federal ethics investigations. Jackson had been on leave from Congress since mid-June after defeating Halvorson in the March primary, leaving his general election voters only a lone automated phone message telling them he would come back when cleared by doctors.
But Jackson never returned to office. Just days before the special primary, he and his wife, former 7th Ward Ald. Sandi Jackson, each pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges.
Kelly ran a largely one-issue campaign, focusing on gun violence and her backing of Obama's push to ban military-style assault weapons, limit large-capacity ammunition magazines and require universal background checks for gun purchasers. Kelly focused on the gun issue even before the elementary school shootings in Newtown, Conn., calling her push to quell such violence a personal one because of friends she'd seen become victims.
Tribune reporters Monique Garcia and Hal Dardick contributed.