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« Day by Daley, Thursday 13 November Fix this Cycle! Illinois' Too-Long Elections »

Election 2008 Thu Nov 13 2008

Case Study: How Do Chicago's Players "Resolve" An Open Seat?

One of the great things about Chicago politics is that they're both really wild and kind of static. There are so many powerful vested interests and office-holders-for-life that the sudden opportunity for genuine competition kind of makes everybody go insane. Senator Obama's open Senate seat, in tandem with his drafting of 5th District Congressman Rahm Emanuel, has created a flurry of activity that will reach deep into the local level.

What often happens when there are bona fide open seats that need to be competed for is that players will get involved for the explicit purpose of extracting concessions, favors, or agreements with the people with the better likelihood of winning (or greater hunger for) the seat.

After the jump, we'll take a quick look at the 5th District seat and the players.

Chicago's 5th District is Dan Rostenkowski's old district, and its political heart and soul were once in the 32nd Ward. With the dissolution of the old Rostenkowski machine with the election of Scott Waguespack last year, and State Rep. John Fritchey's reform-minded takeover of the Ward's Regular Democratic Organization, the 5th District presents an interesting political opportunity to be remade in the image of its next holder.

Rahm, while an effective Congressman, never really belonged to us; his district is a platform for building his strength in the national party apparatus. But the 5th District grabs a lot of prime city real estate -- the 43rd Ward, the 47th Ward, the 40th Ward; and Bungalow strongholds like Belmont Cragin, Portage Park, Jeff Park, Edison Park, Montclare, etc. It then leaks into some of the more favorable Cook suburbs (meaning they have Chicago-y demographics) like Franklin Park, Schiller Park and Northlake. This lay of the land makes the 5th District a potentially great political base for a political leader with an eye toward greater local influence.

This doesn't mean it's a good "stepping stone," but rather that strong leadership in that district could easily translate to leadership in Cook County -- which means the results of this special election could have profound consequences for the subsequent years.

With Rahm out of the picture (and by the way, the guy with a reputation for stabbing tables with knives in fury used to spend his weekend talking to voters outside Jewel on Montrose, so go figure), local pols can't wait for a shot at the seat -- not only for the long-term reasons, but mostly because competitive seats in this town are so rare that if you pass one up, you may not see one again for a generation.

So it will be instructive to watch not only who the candidates are, but who backs each candidate. The players behind the candidate are probably going to end up being more important, since the coalitions formed if the seat truly is competitive will likely last past the election as horses are traded and favors are called in down the line.

(A pair of stories by Micah Maidenburg and Lorraine Swanson provide excellent background on Flores and Schulter.)

Here's the roll call, in no particular order:

Deb Mell, daughter of 33rd Ward Alderman and local legend (and father-in-law to the Governor) Dick Mell, just won her first election to the state house a few days before she announced she'd be interested in running for this seat. It's hard to imagine Dick Mell wouldn't support his daughter for the seat, but I haven't found any outright endorsement. Mell's organizational and financial apparatuses would give pause to any of the more lightweight aspirants.

Gene Schulter, Alderman and Committeeman of the Fightin' 47th Ward. Schulter is a respected manager of his ward, a long-time alderman with a respected organization.

John Fritchey is the state Representative from the 11th District, and the Committeeman for the 32nd Ward. His district is centered on Bucktown and Lakeview. Fritchey has gone on record as saying he is in the "exploratory" mode at this point, but should be considered a favorite given his popularity in his own district, his reinvigorated ward organization, and his fundraising and organizing work for progressive Chicago politicians over the last five years or so.

Manny Flores is the 1st Ward Alderman and one-time candidate for the 4th Congressional District seat still held by Luis Gutierrez (Gutierrez briefly flirted with retiring, and then the Democrats recaptured the House). Did you catch the problem there? Manny lives in the 4th District. But he points out that he went to high school in the district (in Northlake; ironically, when he first ran for Alderman, incumbent Jesse Granato accused him of being a carpetbagger from Northlake).

Mike Quigley is a County Commissioner and part of the "good government" block, along with Forrest Claypool, who offer the Democratic opposition to Board President Todd Stroger. Claypool was also rumored, but declined.

State Senator John Cullerton, locked in a tight race to succeed Emil Jones, wisely instantly denied he would run; any waffling would have weakened his votes in the caucus.

And then there's this (hat tip to Josh at Progress Illinois, who cites Greg Hinz at Crain's):

Meanwhile, there's an intriguing wrinkle in the race for Mr. Emanuel's seat: talk that he really only wants to serve as chief of staff for two years, and wants a mere seat-warmer who would give the job back when Rahm so requests.

Mr. Emanuel's spokeswoman terms that talk "false and ridiculous." But at least one source, who claims to have discussed the possibility with Rahmbo personally, says he really was reluctant to give up the seat and really would like to keep his options open to reclaim it down the road.

If that talk is true, look for municipal finance banker John Borovicka, Mr. Emanuel's chief of staff, to run for the House and for Mr. Emanuel to cut lots of Chicago-style deals to get it for him

If Borovicka gets in the race, that would send a clear message that Rahm is looking to return someday soon. Rahm's wrath (probably accompanied by some Mayoral harmonies) could be enough to spook the more faint of heart. But this is a democracy, and Congressional seats are nobody's property -- so who'll have the stomach to soldier on?

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Veronica / November 18, 2008 12:20 PM

Sara Feigenholtz & Tammy Duckworth were also in the Sun-Times "mug shot" display of potentials. Any thoughts on these two? I would really love to hear them!!

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It's not surprising that some of Mayor Emanuel's sympathizers and supporters are confusing people's substantive disputes with the mayor as the effect of poor marketing on his part. It's exactly this insular worldview that has gotten the mayor in hot... More...

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