Race for House Seat Complicated by Scandal

Posted December 10, 2008 at 6:54pm

The ascension of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to become President-elect Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff in January will require a special election, set by the governor, to fill the 5th district seat that Blagojevich once held.

Although Emanuel has not said when he will resign, presumably it would be before Jan. 6, when the 111th Congress is sworn in. After he vacates the seat, by state law, the governor has five days to call a primary and special election, which must be held within 115 days.

But if Blagojevich does not heed calls to resign and the state Legislature begins impeachment proceedings, the governorship may be in flux in early January and it could mean that Emanuel will delay his departure from the House.

“Nothing has been decided” about the timing of the resignation, Emanuel spokesman Nick Papas said.

Before allegations came to light Tuesday that Blagojevich was attempting to sell his appointment of Obama’s successor to the highest bidder, Chicago election officials were urging the governor to schedule the special House primary for February and the general election for April, in conjunction with municipal elections in the city’s suburbs — a move that would help trim costs and minimize confusion.

But state legislators in Springfield are set to meet next week to begin the process of trying to remove the decision from Blagojevich’s hands and fill the Senate vacancy through a special election — which according to one published estimate could cost as much as $50 million.

If that eventually comes to fruition, state and local leaders could move to try to hold the Senate and House elections at the same time, which could have an effect on turnout in the downballot race.

“Clearly Rahm’s leaving. There’s going to be a special. The question is when and where and does the Senate stuff have any impact on it?” said Eric Adelstein, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant.

The 5th district special election was even mentioned in the 76-page document released Tuesday charging the governor with a brazen public corruption scheme detailed, in part, though conversations recorded by the FBI with telephone wiretaps and listening devices.

The government alleges that Blagojevich intended to speak with a “President-elect advisor” about the 5th district, which Blagojevich represented from 1997 through 2002 when he was elected governor.

When “he asks me for the Fifth CD thing, I want it to be in his head,” Blagojevich said in a conversation recorded Nov. 13. It isn’t clear what the person might be asking for in relation to the 5th district contest.

It is possible the person who he is referring to is Emanuel, who succeeded him in the House, but U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald made it clear in a news conference Tuesday that he was making no allegations about anyone who was not named in the affidavit.

The affidavit also states that prior intercepted phone conversations indicated that Blagojevich and others were determining whether he had the power as governor to appoint an interim replacement for Emanuel until a special election is held.

While the timeline for the special election is still unknown, both the quiet and overt jockeying among a long list of elected officials in the district is in full swing.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D) is the candidate furthest out of the starting gate at this point and is in the process of getting a campaign operation up and running.

“While yesterday’s developments change some of the politics in this race, they don’t alter our goal of building a top-notch campaign that allows us to engage voters and talk about issues that truly impact their day-to-day lives,” Feigenholtz said in a statement Wednesday.

Other Democrats mentioned as being interested in taking a look at the House race are Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, state Rep. John Fritchey, 47th Ward Alderman Gene Schulter, 40th Ward Alderman Patrick O’Connor, 38th Ward Alderman Tom Allen and 39th Ward Alderman Marge Laurino.

In an interview Wednesday, Fritchey, who is the chief state House sponsor of the bill calling for a special Senate election, said he is continuing to look at the Congressional race.

“Obviously recent events help me refocus on how much work there is for me to do here, but at the same time, it also gives me pause to think, what if I may want to take my efforts to another venue,” he said.

Fritchey was the House sponsor of Illinois’ new high-profile ethics law, which takes effect Jan. 1. The new “pay-to-play” ban was inspired by the prolific fundraising from state contractors by Blagojevich and prevents major campaign contributors from landing lucrative state contracts.

The fact that corruption and reform are likely to be major issues in the special election could boost Fritchey.

“I see that message as doing nothing but helping my candidacy, should I choose to run,” Fritchey said.

However, most of the local officials mentioned represent overlapping territory and therefore share bases of support. That leads some observers to believe there will be a concerted effort to find a consensus candidate, instead of having a free-for-all. Longtime Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) is likely to hold big swat in that process. O’Connor has said he will only run if he has Daley’s endorsement.

Still, there could be a crowded Democratic primary because current officeholders do not have to give up their positions to run in the special election.

There are also unelected candidates eyeing the race.

Aviation security specialist and businessman Justin Oberman, the son of a former Chicago alderman, has formed an exploratory committee to look at the race.

Former Alderman Edwin Eisendrath, who challenged Blagojevich and was crushed in the 2006 gubernatorial primary, is also looking at the race. Eisendrath, who has the same fundraiser as Emanuel, put his own personal money into that contest and could potentially self-fund a House bid.

“A concern of a lot of public elected officials is that a self-funder could just come in and grab this thing, it’s going to be such a short sprint,” said one Democrat with knowledge of the district.

The 5th district runs across Chicago’s North Side, from the lakefront to the suburbs just south of Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Most of the district lies in the city, and it takes in portions of 19 city council wards.

It is heavily Democratic and mostly white and Hispanic. Republicans are not expected to contest the special election.

The district also has a rich history.

“This is storied seat,” Adelstein said. “This is a seat with a colorful past ,and it apparently has a colorful present and future.”

Before Emanuel and Blagojevich, the 5th district was represented from 1959 to 1995 by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D), the longtime chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. A political corruption scandal led to Rostenkowski’s stunning upset in 1994 by Michael Patrick Flanagan. Blagojevich won the seat back for Democrats in 1996.