By Reid Wilson - 02/23/09 06:32 PM EST
Three front-runners are vying to replace White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the House, and the winner of the Democratic primary is heavily favored to win the April 7 general election.
The March 3 contest could be decided by as few as 30,000 voters or as many as 50,000 — a tiny number for any primary — in which Chicago’s infamous political machines will compete with national interest groups, Big Labor and local newspaper endorsements to influence enough voters to claim a majority.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the diversity of the district, but I think the one constant is, wherever you go in this district, people are worried about staying in their jobs and staying in their homes,” said State Rep. John Fritchey (D), one of the leading contenders for the post.
Another top candidate, state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D), has positioned herself as the candidate best able to fix the nation’s healthcare crisis, and early backing from EMILY’s List — the Democratic group that backs pro-choice female candidates — could bolster her support.
“Healthcare is my focus. I’m the daughter of an immigrant who put herself through medical school and who taught me that healthcare is a right, not a privilege,” Feigenholtz said.
Feigenholtz pointed to a measure she sponsored in the state House — sponsored in the Senate by then-state Sen. Barack Obama — that gave 200,000 poor families access to healthcare for children, along with other healthcare accomplishments during her career. “I can be an impact player in healthcare because I’ve been there in Illinois,” she said.
Two other specters loom large over the race — ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and the senator he appointed, Roland Burris (D), who is dealing with his own emerging scandal.
“They’re motivating the voters,” Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, a third top candidate, told The Hill of the two disgraced Democrats. “This is the first chance [voters] are going to get ... for them to act out. And we can do it through the ballot box.”
Quigley has focused his campaign on his efforts to reform Cook County government through increased accountability and transparency, a record that won him endorsements from Chicago’s two major papers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times.
“Mr. Blagojevich and Mr. Burris are certainly pushing our message,” Quigley said. The commissioner has long battled Cook County board President Todd Stroger, another unpopular figure in Chicago circles.
Early polling suggests Quigley leads the pack, thanks in large part to his having better name recognition than the other candidates. But Feigenholtz and Fritchey have led the fundraising race, pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Quigley and giving them an early opportunity to run television spots to bolster their own name recognition.
Feigenholtz has been running television advertisements since Feb. 13, while Fritchey went on air Feb. 17. Quigley’s first advertisements will run Tuesday.
But Chicago is one of the nation’s most expensive media markets, forcing candidates to emphasize their message through the mail. Candidates are putting an emphasis on their ground games and on support from groups like Big Labor that have experience in turning out voters.
Labor has largely split between its two allies in Springfield, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the AFL-CIO and other major groups backing Fritchey, who also has close ties to several powerful ward bosses who could drive turnout. But the Service Employees International Union — unusually powerful in Chicago — is supporting Feigenholtz.
The primary has also brought out an unusual number of prominent public officials. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) has raised money for Fritchey; state Comptroller Dan Hynes is backing Feigenholtz. And Forrest Claypool, a fellow Cook County commissioner who is well-known in the district, is backing Quigley.
Emanuel has not endorsed a candidate.
Three other candidates have made waves in the race, though they poll well behind the front-runners.
City Councilman Patrick O’Connor (D), a longtime fixture on the Chicago political scene, looked like an early favorite, though he entered the race late. Still, O’Connor has good name recognition and an organization in the district, and his campaign has implemented an aggressive mail program, according to an adviser.
University of Chicago lecturer Charlie Wheelan (D) is running to the right of the main field, pitching himself as a centrist able to appeal to some of the district’s similarly inclined Republicans.
Labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan (D) is running to the left and has attracted support from Democracy for America, The Nation magazine and liberal intellectuals like ex-Rep. Abner Mikva (D-Ill.), James Fallows, Naomi Wolf, Hendrik Hertzberg and others. Geoghegan’s campaign has attracted the attentions of liberal bloggers across the country, a factor that can help a candidate in a primary election. Former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi is helping Geoghegan’s race.
The front-runners may not be completely safe in the top tier, either. Feigenholtz has been criticized for her relationship with Blagojevich, though she has tried to put distance between herself and the former governor over recent years. Fritchey took heat from some opponents for his role on the state House Impeachment panel, where some suggested he helped Burris through questioning. And Quigley’s slow fundraising pace could hinder him in the end.