Race to Replace Emanuel Is Beginning to Intensify

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:35pm

It could be the second-most famous Congressional seat in Illinois right now.

Incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s former north Chicagoland House seat is open, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has set an April 7 election to fill it.

More than a dozen Democrats are vying to follow in Emanuel’s footsteps in the March 3 primary while staying as far as possible from scandal-tainted Blagojevich, who held the 5th district seat before Emanuel.

The crowd of announced Democratic candidates includes at least four elected officials: state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, state Rep. John Fritchey, Chicago Alderman Eugene Schulter, and Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley. But a bevy of other candidates is also in the mix and could split the likely low-turnout contest in almost any direction.

Journalist Tom Geoghegan, former Transportation Security Administration official Justin Oberman, physician Victor Forys, economics lecturer Charlie Wheelan and pilot Jan Donatelli are also running in the Democratic primary, and others are still contemplating the race. There are so far no Republicans running in the district, which almost certainly will stay in Democratic hands.

The field will likely get smaller next week once candidates file their petitions to run, including a threshold of 927 valid signatures for Democrats to make the ballot.

“Based on that alone, you’re going to see that field get winnowed down from the 12 or 15 who have expressed interest to those who can be viable candidates,” Fritchey said.

Also next week, some candidates will file finance reports with the Federal Election Commission — which could determine candidate viability in a short but expensive special election.

There’s also a question of whether Emanuel or Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) could play in the race, but 5th district sources said that is unlikely.

Until then, however, Chicago-based Democratic consultant Eric Adelstein said Fritchey, Feigenholtz, Schulter and Quigley likely will comprise the first tier of candidates.

Given the short timetable for the special election — major party candidates must turn in their petitions to the state by Jan. 19 — having a political operation and fundraising structure already in place could be key, Adelstein said.

“I think Feigenholtz, if she’s the only woman, that’s a substantive advantage,” he said.

Feigenholtz represents the more liberal lakefront part of the 5th district, which extends west to more blue-collar neighborhoods. Adelstein said it’s possible that Feigenholtz and Quigley could split the lakefront vote, which leaves the more conservative western portion of the district up for grabs.

Feigenholtz also has the advantage of starting her campaign earlier than other top-tier candidates, which helped her raise $300,000 so far in the campaign.

“The strategy is sprint and get your message out to the people,” Feigenholtz said. “I believe that I have a very great, compelling message for these times.”

Fritchey, however, could say that he has history on his side: Not only has he held Blagojevich’s state House seat since he ran for Congress in 1996, but Emanuel lives in his neighborhood. Fritchey is also one of the chief sponsors of ethics legislation in the state Capitol.

“If I had to pick somebody today, I’d say John has a really good shot at it,” said one Chicago-based consultant who has worked in the 5th district.

The GOP consultant said Feigenholtz was too far to the left for most of the district outside her lakefront base. The consultant warned that the 5th district is not nearly as liberal as Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s (D) lakefront 9th district to its north.

“Her views are not going to jive too well with rest of that district,” said the Republican. “Sara’s too out there for the district and I just can’t see how that plays.”

Schulter, who represents the ward just west of the lakefront area, is also running for the Congressional seat — and can also boast Emanuel as a constituent.

“I think that I can add my leadership to helping the president, as well as the Congress, come up with some great ideas about moving us forward again,” Schulter said.

Fellow Alderman Patrick O’Connor (D) could also get into the race — but reportedly only on the condition that the mayor supports his candidacy.

It’s unclear, however, whether Daley will want to play kingmaker in this race.

“It’s hard to imagine [O’Connor] running without the perception of the mayor’s blessing,” Adelstein said.

An O’Connor aide said the alderman would decide in the next day or two if he would run for the Congressional seat.