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Ill. Race Turns on Change

CHICAGO — This past Sunday afternoon, 19 candidates made their pitches to an audience of 35 voters gathered in a smoky VFW hall in the snow-covered Windy City suburbs.

That candidate-to-voter ratio, however, was an improvement from the day before — when 13 of those same politicians pandered to a single voter in the audience at a forum held at a local school.

On one level it’s amazing that so many people want to run for Illinois’ 5th district seat, given the colorful history of its previous occupants. One former Member went to jail, another could be on his way, and the most recent Congressman vacated the seat for another kind of big house.

There are 12 Democrats running to succeed White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in Tuesday’s special election primary, the contest that will in essence decide the eventual winner.

But more importantly, the 5th district race comes at a time when many voters here are experiencing a political hangover. After President Barack Obama’s historic campaign, followed by the controversy over impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) alleged scheme to auction off his appointment to fill Obama’s Senate seat, turnout next week is expected to be abysmal — possibly as few as 35,000 voters.

In the past, the Chicago Democratic machine would easily turn out the vote for this kind of contest, but the special election has served as a reminder of the political organization’s diminished influence. There are four leading contenders, but not a frontrunner in sight.

‘Join the Party’

In the smoke-filled Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting room, three of the first-tier Democrats sat together on the far right of a long row candidates in dark suits. Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz and Alderman Patrick O’Connor waited patiently, taking notes and occasionally looking up at the crowd while the other 16 candidates took the soapbox for their allotted three minutes.

When Feigenholtz took the microphone, she mainly talked about health care, recalling how her immigrant mother used to treat patients in their West Side Chicago home.

“She taught me that health care was a right and not a privilege, and that has inspired me my whole life,” she said.

Feigenholtz, the only viable female candidate in the race, hopes female voters will push her over the edge on Election Day. That strategy would be a pipe dream in any other race, but in a low-turnout Democratic primary, Feigenholtz’s female base — plus her impressive fundraising — could make the difference.

In Lakeview the night before, more than 100 supporters — almost all women — gathered to greet Feigenholtz at the Flourish Studios gift store.

A well-coiffed Feigenholtz worked the room, talking to one cleverly dressed female supporter at a time. One longtime fan, Elyse Forkash Cutler, 37, recalled how Feigenholtz began her bid.

“As soon as we knew Rahm was going to the White House, I sent her a text message and was like, ‘Sara, what’s the name of your Congressional campaign committee? We want to write you a check.’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, ha-ha-ha,’” Cutler said. “And a bunch of us got together that weekend in her living room and said, ‘You have got to do this. Get on the phone right now and start raising money.’”

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