AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is taking his anti-gun campaign to Illinois and its 2nd congressional district. There, no less than 22 candidates hope to replace former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Gun violence plagued some of the Chicago neighborhoods that are part of the district. And as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, guns have become a key issue in the race.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The 30-second television ad for Michael Bloomberg's Independence U.S.A. PAC hammers former Illinois Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, telling voters in the state's 2nd congressional district to watch out for her.
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MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: I've seen this in Congress before. Halvorson got an A from the NRA. The NRA, against comprehensive background checks, against banning deadly assault weapons.
CORLEY: The Bloomberg PAC attacked gun control opponents in several races last year. Spokesman Stefan Friedman says in this campaign they looked at Halvorson's entire political record as a former state lawmaker and former U.S. representative. He says her positions on guns have been way out of the mainstream.
STEFAN FRIEDMAN: We went up with this ad. It's clear what her record has been. She has stood by that record repeatedly.
CORLEY: Halvorson ran against Jesse Jackson, Jr. and lost during the last Democratic primary. She is now one of 17 Democrats running for the seat vacated by Jackson last November. Halvorson says it's a shame that Mayor Bloomberg is trying to influence the race in Illinois and she calls the ad misleading. She says she supports background checks and efforts to close gun show loopholes.
DEBBIE HALVORSON: These are all things, as I travel this district over, that people are saying, you know, maybe before they didn't like but they understand that we're going to have to do.
CORLEY: But when it comes to banning assault weapons...
HALVORSON: I don't believe that we need to ban anymore guns that hurt the law abiding citizen until we do something to go after the criminals.
CORLEY: And Halvorson adds that assault weapons are rarely the guns used in Chicago area shootings. The 2nd congressional district is a mix of middle and working class, urban, suburban and rural areas where jobs and economic development have long been the main concerns. However, since most Chicago homicides last year were gun related, the conversation about guns and violence has been growing.
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ROBIN KELLY: It's heartbreaking. There are kids dying every day. I'm Robin Kelly. As a mother...
CORLEY: Another Democratic candidate, former state representative Robin Kelly, stepped out early running this radio ad vowing to back tough gun control measures. Other contenders like Chicago alderman Anthony Beale and State Representative Toi Hutchinson say they support gun restrictions, too. However, just like Debbie Halvorson Hutchinson received an A rating from the NRA in the past. Stefan Friedman says the PAC doesn't oppose Hutchinson because she now supports an assault weapons ban.
FRIEDMAN: That is coming around and coming to a place of common sense reform that this PAC, and particularly Mayor Bloomberg, believes in.
CORLEY: Chicago Sun Times columnist Laura Washington says there's more to it than that. She says the Democratic Party believe Halvorson may be too conservative for the area and there is an effort afoot to isolate her. Halvorson is a white candidate who may have an edge since she's running against several African-Americans who can split the vote in a majority black district. But Washington says the Bloomberg ad did up the ante and put the issue of gun control front and center.
LAURA WASHINGTON: Many voters weren't even really paying attention to this race until that Bloomberg ad hit. And so I think it's having an impact. And it's capitalizing on the angst and concern that's already out there about guns.
CORLEY: It's a message that the Independence PAC, with its more than $600,000 advertising blitz, hopes will stand as voters head to the polls to select party nominees for the 2nd congressional district later this month. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.