The question of who will fill Obama’s Senate seat has gotten the lion’s share of media coverage, but meanwhile things are heating up around another question, the one of who will replace Obama’s Chief of Staff—Rahm Emanuel—in the seat from Illinois’ fifth Congressional district, here in Chicago.

I went to a meeting tonight of the local chapter of Democracy For America (the organization that springboarded out of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run), for a presentation and discussion of what’s happening in the 5th district. The room was packed, standing room only—I’d estimate at least 80 people there, on a cold wintry weeknight. Locally, at least, this contest is attracting some real attention.

I used to live in the 5th… back in the ’90s when it was represented by Dan Rostenkowski, then (for one term) Republican Michael Flanagan, then Rod Blagojevich… although I’d moved on to a new neighborhood by the time Rahm was elected in 2002. Not exactly a list covered with glory, but still, as those names might suggest (except for Flanagan, the only successful GOP challenger for the seat in 50 years), it’s a district that carries a bit more weight than the average Congressional seat, in terms of influence and career prospects.

And unlike the Senate seat, a vacancy has to be filled by special election. The primary for this one will be held on March 3, only eight weeks away. Chicago being a Democratic city, whoever wins the primary will win the general… and whoever wins the general can quite likely stay in Congress for as long as he pleases after that. And given that genuinely open Congressional seats in Chicago are not exactly everyday occurrences, it’s a free-for-all.

The presentation tonight was by local political consultant Mike Fourcher (and a very thorough presentation it was; it can be viewed on his web site, if you’re interested), who joked that he was tapped because he was the only local consultant who hadn’t already been hired to work on the campaign of one candidate or another. After all, there are at least fifteen people who have expressed interest in the seat, with no “heir apparent” or obvious front-runner.

I’m not going to run down all fifteen of them here. Right now, we don’t even know how many will actually be on the ballot:  the first step is to gather signatures. There are over half a million eligible voters in the district, but less than 100,000 voted in the last primary… so the signature requirement is just over 900 people, 1% of that total. The thing is, petitions have just started to circulate this week… and they have to be turned in by January 19, a week from Monday. That obviously favors candidates who already have an organization of footsoldiers, or who are otherwise ready to hit the streets.

Six of the fifteen are current elected officials. Three of those are Chicago Aldermen (and rumor has it that Ald. Pat O’Connor is the “machine” candidate, willing to just keep the seat warm until Rahm returns from the other end of Pennsylvania avenue… but it’s only rumor, and Mayor Daley is highly unlikely to offer a public endorsement for anyone in this melee). Two others are state reps, and one is a Cook County commissioner. Of this bunch, two stand out as pretty good candidates:  Rep. Sara Feigenholtz is a traditional lakefront liberal who’s likely to draw significant support from the GLBT community, and Comm. Mike Quigley is one of the die-hard reformers on the generally notorious County Board.

The candidates who aren’t already professional politicians are a motley assortment, ranging from a University of Chicago professor to a community activist to a variety of business entrepreneurs. Most of them are reliably progressive, but the one who’s really started to pick up buzz as a “dark horse” contender is Harvard-educated labor lawyer and enviably talented author Tom Geoghegan (pronounced gay-gan).

This man has “progressive reformer” street cred to spare. He’s already picked up some national and even international media attention, and is quickly becoming a favorite of the netroots. He’s the preferred candidate of Joe Trippi, and Nixonland author (and fellow U of C alum) Rick Perlstein has started a Facebook group to support him. James Fallows at The Atlantic writes,

I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about his deciding to run. … Geoghegan’s skills as a writer and an intellectual are assets but in themselves might not recommend him for a Congressional job. His consistent and canny record of organizing, representing, and defending people who are the natural Democratic (and American) base is the relevant point.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Thomas Frank (yet another U of Cer—yeah, I’m proud of my school!) says,

Now that conservative orthodoxy has collapsed in a heap of complex derivatives, I can’t help but think what a refreshing dose of plain-spoken Midwestern reality Mr. Geoghegan could bring to the nation as a whole.

To begin with, Mr. Geoghegan thinks big while Democrats in Washington tend to think small, proposing a stimulus package here and better oversight there. The government’s goal, as he explained it to me a few days ago, should not merely be “to pump up demand again.” It should be to enact sweeping, structural change, “to get in a position where we’re not bleeding jobs out of the country.” …

“Economic security is not only compatible with being competitive globally,” he tells me; “it’s crucial to it.” Until we shift the burden of pensions and health care from companies to government we will continue to endure “debacles like General Motors” and so many others.

Blogger Kathy G. at “The G Spot” writes,

What does his entry into this race feel like? Well, to start, think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Like the iconic character played by Jimmy Stewart in that film, Tom is a tall, gangly political outsider, and he has every bit of Jefferson Smith’s indefatigable idealism and rock-solid integrity.

So there’s obviously no question that Tom Geoghegan is the kind of man we want and need in Congress, and at the moment I’m leaning in his direction. The uncomfortable unanswered question, though, is… can he win? Granted that in a race like this a plurality of 20 or 30% might be enough to take the day; still, the fact remains that he doesn’t have a local organization behind him. Friends and admirers in the media and among the political cognoscenti, what The Politico’s Ben Smith dismissively calls “the intellectual left,” may help improve his name recognition or even raise money, but unless they live in Illinois’ 5th, they can’t vote for him, or even sign a nominating petition, any more than I can. At the end of the day, it’s still a very local race, and there are only a few weeks to separate oneself from the crowd. Support from allies in organized labor could certainly help, but in a contest like this it’s entirely possible that the unions and other special interests, like Daley, might stay on the sideline rather than risk backing a losing horse.

In the end, it may well be grass-roots citizens’ groups like the DFA that tip the balance in this race. Some of last year’s special elections were pleasant surprises (Hastert’s old seat springs to mind), and in the wake of Obama’s victory ordinary people are more engaged and optimistic about politics that they’ve been for a long time. Will that be enough? We’ll see in the days and weeks ahead.

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