Skip to content

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.’”

Feigenholtz filled her coffers with the help of EMILY’s List and the local gay community. With about $700,000 raised, Feigenholtz put in an additional $100,000 of her own money in the last week of the campaign.

State Rep. John Fritchey, the fourth top-tier contender in the race, sat at the other end of the table waiting his turn to speak. Fritchey has the dubious honor of succeeding Blagojevich in the state Legislature, but he has since battled the now former governor in the state Capitol. At this particular debate, Fritchey recalled how he worked with Obama, then a state Senator, on ethics reform in 2003.

“When it comes to change, the best thing we’ve done for change is something that I’m very proud to have led the effort on, and that was changing the governor a couple months ago,” Fritchey said to a chorus of chuckles.

Although the scandal-tarnished Blagojevich and his now infamous profanity-laced antics loom large in this Congressional race, the irony is that very few of the candidates have ever had a conversation with the isolated former governor. Fritchey said he never had a meaningful conversation with Blagojevich, aside from one time when the former 5th district Congressman called him to wish him well after an illness.

“That’s probably the only conversation I’ve had of substance with the governor in seven years, other than the kind of passing ‘F you’ in the hallway,” Fritchey said in an interview after the forum.

While there is no clear frontrunner, the next Congressman or Congresswoman from the 5th district is likely to be one of the four officeholders. Several wild-card candidates, however, such as economist Charlie Wheelan or attorney Tom Geoghegan, are centering their campaigns on a message of change but are considered long-shot candidates.

After 18 candidates had delivered their opening statements, the organizer asked if there were any remaining candidates in the room.

“Would any of you like to be a candidate?” Quigley asked the crowd to a chorus of laughs.

“Join the party,” Feigenholtz chimed in.

Within seconds, a middle-aged man in a suit — the 19th candidate — took the podium.

Man Vs. the Machine

Historically, the Chicago Democratic machine would turn out the vote for a contest like this, but the political organization’s gradual demise is obvious in the 5th district special election.

When Blagojevich and Emanuel were elected to represent the 5th district, the political organization in Chicago was alive and well. With Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s backing, Emanuel defeated former state Rep. Nancy Kaszak 50 percent to 39 percent in an eight-person field in the 2002 Democratic primary.

A city-backed candidate used to be able clear the field, but that kind of machine support has become increasingly less important in Chicago politics.

“The machine is tired. The machine has been beat down. The machine has been investigated,” said one Chicago-based Democratic consultant. “Everyone is kind of watching their backs a little more.”

Given that reality, according to one Democrat, Feigenholtz’s recent endorsement from state Comptroller Dan Hynes (D) or Fritchey’s support from state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) means more in headlines than in the actual ground game in a Congressional campaign.

“The last time the Daley machine worked for anyone besides Daley was for Rahm Emanuel,” said another Democratic operative knowledgeable in Chicago politics.

By most accounts, O’Connor and Fritchey would most likely benefit from a well-oiled machine. Fritchey has the support of several aldermen, including presumably his father-in-law. O’Connor is an ally of the mayor, and initially it was reported he would not get in the race unless he had Daley’s backing. But the mayor has yet to endorse O’Connor or anyone else.

“The mayor is concerned, I think, and this is my surmise … that when the mayor comes out and endorses somebody, if that person loses then people say it was a loss for the mayor, his clout couldn’t get the candidate elected,” O’Connor said.

On Sunday morning, O’Connor worked the room at his annual fashion show brunch just outside of the district in Niles, Ill.

Phyllis Cypcar, a red-headed woman in her 50s, ranted to O’Connor about the problems with nearby O’Hare International Airport and road conditions in her neighborhood. Although they recently moved outside the 5th district, Cypcar said her husband still volunteered to campaign for O’Connor.

“I’m kinda of pissed at Daley, because Alderman O’Connor has done a lot for him,” Cypcar said. “And I just don’t like that he didn’t come out and say [he was] for anybody even. He’s not backing anyone. And I just don’t like that. I think people are getting tired of Daley, too.”

More than 600 women gathered at the Polish reception hall, where they sipped Bloody Marys poured by their husbands and sons — the substitute bartenders for this special event. For O’Connor, the annual show is a pep rally for his army of supporters.

“You know, in Chicago, if they ever tell you to vote twice, just bring somebody with you,” O’Connor quipped to another supporter.

Candidate of Change?

Quigley, a scrappy hockey player in a well-worn blazer, put his silver titanium briefcase on the table at campaign headquarters. He then closed the door on his own campaign aides — leaving them on the outside asking him whether he wanted them to sit in.

“He is his own best press secretary,” one aide said after the fact.

And the press, it seems, does love Quigley. He was endorsed by both of Chicago’s major newspapers, which could actually make a difference in the largely unnoticed special election.

On the other hand, the media’s love for Quigley could have more to do with their disdain for his nemesis, Cook County Commissioner Todd Stroger. Quigley’s campaign has openly promoted his rivalry with Stroger, who is unpopular in the district, in his first television advertisement in the final week of the campaign.

Quigley likes to say he was the change candidate before it was fashionable — since Obama rode the message of change from the state Senate to the White House. Still. he says, not much has changed in Illinois since Obama was elected.

“What altered the landscape since [Obama] was sworn in?” Quigley asked. “It made sense that he was campaigning for change and change we can believe in, except we’ve thrown a governor out of office and [Sen. Roland] Burris followed in his footsteps and the economy is still in the situation that it is, people still read the scandal du jour in Chicago.”

Quigley stopped and apologized as he moved his mouth around and flexed his fingers, which were stiff from the two hours of canvassing he did that morning in 16-degree temperatures.

Later that afternoon, a dozen Chicago 30-somethings clad in colorful sweaters with their hyperactive children in tow gathered for a meet-and-greet in a residential home, just around the corner from Blagojevich’s house.

When Quigley talked to the crowd, he appeared most proud of his work to enact the smoking ban in Chicago, an ordinance that resisted repeal by a single vote. When seeking that needed vote, Quigley described how he bargained with another local official to get it done — an example, he said, of his legislative acumen.

“I traded other votes for that issue.” Quigley said. “I understand how to get things done.”

Quigley’s candid admission did not elicit any unusual response from the crowd, though it would certainly raise eyebrows in many other districts around the country.

It was a stark reminder that while a lot of grease might be gone from the old Democratic machine, this is still Chicago.

Recent Stories

Capitol Ink | Aerial assault

Auto parts suppliers fear a crash with shift to EVs

As summer interns descend on the Hill, this resource office is ready

Democrats add five candidates to Red to Blue program

Is Congress still ‘The Last Plantation’? It is for staffers, says James Jones

Staffers bear the brunt of threats aimed at district offices