Judy Keen, USA TODAY
CHICAGO -- A congressional primary election here Tuesday will be an early test of the potency of gun control issues in the post-Newtown political landscape.
Twenty-two candidates, 17 of them Democrats, will be on Tuesday's ballot. They are competing to square off in the April 9 special election to fill the seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr. He resigned from the House of Representatives in November and last week pleaded guilty to the misuse of campaign funds.
Jackson, a Democrat, represented Illinois' 2nd District, which includes parts of Chicago and suburbs and rural areas south of the city. Because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner of the Democratic primary is likely to win the seat.
The December shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and Chicago's high murder rate have put guns at the center of the campaign. There were 506 homicides here last year, most of them involving guns, and the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton here in a gang shooting last month became a national symbol of gun violence.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's super political action committee, Independence USA, has heightened the focus on guns by spending $2.1 million to boost the candidacy of former state Rep. Robin Kelly, a Democrat who supports a ban on military-style assault weapons.
In a TV ad sponsored by Independence USA, an announcer says Democrat Debbie Halvorson, a former congresswoman, "can't be trusted" and calls Kelly "a champion in the fight against gun violence." None of the candidates' campaigns is running TV ads.
Bloomberg's role in the campaign has drawn criticism from Kelly's opponents and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat. "We should not allow anyone with huge amounts of money to dictate the terms of the political debate," Quinn said. Bloomberg is an independent.
Bloomberg said last week he has every right to get involved. "I happen to have some money and ... that's what I'm going to do with my money, is try to get us some sensible gun laws," he said.
Independence USA spokesman Stefan Friedman says the group spent about $12 million on 2012 campaigns.
Halvorson calls Bloomberg's ad "over the top" and says she supports universal background checks for gun buyers, mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms and other "common sense" regulations. She says she opposes banning any particular guns. Halvorson, who lost to Jackson in the 2012 primary election, has not been endorsed by the National Rifle Association nor has she received campaign contributions from it, she says.
Halvorson says gun violence "is part of the conversation" among voters, but adds, "My main concern and what I've been talking about forever is jobs.".
Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale, another Democrat seeking the nomination, says it's "totally inappropriate" for Bloomberg to insert himself in the campaign. "Voters are saying that the biggest problem in this district is jobs and the lack thereof," he says.
If Bloomberg had "done his research to find out who the real candidate is in the race with a solid record" on gun control, the New York mayor's political action committee would have endorsed him instead, he says.
Kelly also supports universal background checks and limits on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
She says that Bloomberg "doesn't know me from the man in the moon." The ad, she says, "is not about me. It's about the issues that I stand for: gun safety and gun control." Super PACs are allowed to spend unlimited money on campaigns, but they are prohibited from coordinating with candidates.
Chicago political analyst Thom Serafin says it's difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the Independence USA ad "because there's no opponent, no one fighting back."
"I'm not sure Bloomberg should get credit if Kelly wins," he says.