Sunday, November 16, 2008

Illinois 5: Crowd of Candidates to Follow Emanuel’s Vacancy

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Chicago Democrats probably thought they wouldn’t see another Congressional vacancy for decades. But now that Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) is stepping off the House leadership ladder to become White House chief of staff, a growing number of prospective candidates are sizing up a shot at his 5th district seat.

Deborah Mell (D) was just elected to the Illinois state House, and has yet to be sworn in, but she is likely to run for Congress. Mell, who is openly lesbian, is the daughter of powerful Chicago Alderman Dick Mell (D) and is the sister-in-law of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

She’ll have plenty of competition for the seat, where turnout for a special election in early 2009 is expected to be low, and local politics could reign supreme. Once Emanuel’s resignation is official (which is not likely to take place until January), Blagojevich must set the primary and general election dates to be held within 120 days.

The winner of the Democratic primary will be the overwhelming favorite in the special general election in a Northwest Chicago district where Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) received 67 percent in 2004, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) presumably did even better last week.

Former Alderman Edwin Eisendrath (D) challenged the unpopular Blagojevich in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. The governor won with more than 70 percent, but Eisendrath is a potential Congressional candidate. Another vocal Blagojevich critic, attorney and state Rep. John Fritchey, could run as well.

Hyatt Hotel heir J.B. Pritzker is another potential Democratic candidate. He backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic presidential primary, was ranked No. 149 on Forbes’ 2007 list of richest Americans, and ran for Congress in 1998, when he finished third with 21 percent in the 9th district race, won by Jan Schakowsky (D). His sister, Penny Pritzker, is one of Obama’s big financial supporters.

A host of local politicians could look to make the jump to Congress as well.

Democratic Aldermen Gene Schulter, Tom Allen, Marge Laurino, Pat O’Connor, Manny Flores and Tom Tunney are all mentioned. Tunney, a restaurateur, is the only openly gay member of the Chicago City Council. Flores briefly ran at the beginning of the 2008 cycle for the adjacent seat held by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) when it appeared as if the Congressman was retiring. But he quickly deferred when Gutierrez announced he was seeking another term.

Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D) is another potential candidate. He is thought to be close to Emanuel and Obama chief strategist David Axelrod, but Claypool might also be aiming for county board president in 2010.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, former state Representative and 2002 Congressional candidate Nancy Kaszak, and former Clinton White House aide and 2002 candidate Peter Dagher are possibilities as well. Kaszak took 38 percent against Blagojevich back in 1996 in the 5th district Democratic primary, and was the runner-up to Emanuel in 2002.

Attorney Michelle Smith, former Emanuel chief of staff John Borovicka, and businessman Cary Capparelli could be in the mix, too. Capparelli is the son of former state Rep. Ralph Capparelli.

With a large number of credible candidates and no runoff provision under state law, the next Member of Congress in Illinois’ 5th could come with 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote, according to Chicago attorney and political columnist Russ Stewart.

In 2002, Emanuel won an eight-candidate primary with just over 50 percent of the vote. Kaszak was second with 39 percent. Dagher finished third with 5 percent while five other candidates failed to crack 2 percent.

This story first appeared on on November 11, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.