Mel Reynolds Got Out of Jail In 2001, Compliments of Bill Clinton. Why?
They don’t have much in common today. Bill Clinton earns half a million bucks for few speeches. Mel Reynolds rents in Dolton and struggles to pay his bills. But both were once poor southern boys (Arkansas and Mississippi respectively) who rose to become Rhodes Scholars, and who were publicly humiliated for sex with much younger women: a White House intern (Clinton) and a teenage campaign volunteer (Reynolds).
When Bill Clinton handed over the White House to George W. Bush on January 20, 2001, his reputation took a big beating—almost as big as Lewinsky/impeachment—because of some 176 last-minute pardons and commutations. (The most toxic, you may recall, was to Marc Rich, the billionaire commodities trader/arms-trader-to Iran/tax evader/ fugitive-from-American-justice.)
There was also Mel Reynolds, then 47, the imprisoned 2nd District congressman who resigned in 1995 after being indicted on state sex-related charges, including child pornography and having sex with a 16-year-old girl and then attempting to cover it up, and later on for federal fraud charges, including bank fraud and converting campaign funds to personal use (convicted 1997). He was serving prison time on the latter when Clinton, just two hours before leaving office, handed Reynolds his get-out-of-jail-free card.
So why did the president bestow that gift on Reynolds? On his release from a federal prison in North Carolina to a Salvation Army halfway house on Chicago’s near West Side, Reynolds spoke to congregants at the Salem Baptist Church, following a sermon by the Rev. James Meeks. Reynolds credited his commutation to God: “You will never convince me that God didn’t arrange that.”
Actually, it was the Rev. Jesse Jackson who “arranged” it. Clinton certainly owed Jackson, who had counseled/prayed/helped deflect the heat on Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal aftermath. Jackson, whose own infidelity scandal erupted just the week before in 2001, urged President Clinton to do it—presumably on the reasonable grounds that he believed that Reynolds’ sentences were excessive and that he had already suffered enough. And so did Ald. Edward Burke (who introduced a City Council resolution in July 2000 beseeching President Clinton to grant “executive clemency”), Sen. Richard Durbin, and congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny Davis.
I doubt any of these pols are going to endorse Reynolds in his sad race for JJJ’s seat. And one can only wonder how the elder Jackson felt about Reynolds in 2004, when he challenged the Jesse Jr. (who also lobbied Clinton for a commutation for Reynolds and sat beside him during the Meeks’ sermon) in the democratic primary. Reynolds won just six percent of the vote. Some gratitude, huh?
After leaving prison, Reynolds took a job as a consultant with the elder Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, working to cut the numbers of young African Americans sent to prison, as well as a second job as community development director of Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church.
So far, besides Reynolds, the former congresswoman Debbie Halvorson is in the race; so is Alderman Anthony Beale, and state senators Toi Hutchinson, Donne Trotter, and Napoleon Harris. On the sidelines, with announcements expected shortly, are former state representative Robin Kelly and Alderman Will Burns.
Anyone else whose name has not been mentioned likely to jump in? How about Gus Savage, the disgraced 2nd District Congressman—whose reputation was stained by allegations he had forced himself on a female Peace Corps worker in Zaire and who preceded the disgraced Reynolds. Savage is still alive—he’s 87—and no more outlandish a prospect than Reynolds.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune