23 Compete For Emanuel's Congressional Seat

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Primary elections will be held in Chicago Tuesday to narrow the field of candidates vying to fill the congressional seat of Rahm Emanuel. More than 20 candidates are running for the seat vacated when Emanuel became President Obama's chief of staff.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For some people in Illinois it's already election time again. Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff to President Obama, used to be a representative from the 5th Congressional District in Illinois. And now that he's resigned there are so many candidates in the race to replace him that in some forums the candidates outnumber the voters.

There are 23 candidates in all - 12 of them are Democrats, and the winner among them will be the odds-on favorite to win a special general election in April. First, though, there are three primaries tomorrow when Illinois votes get to narrow the field.

From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: A lot of voters in Illinois's 5th Congressional District feel the way Bob Cujampa(ph) does about tomorrow's election.

Mr. BOB CUJAMPA: I think it's somewhat confusing. I really do.

SCHAPER: Confusing because the Democratic race is wide open with 12 candidates on the ballot. Cujampa listened to them all, and the Republican and Green Party candidates, too, at a recent forum. Illinois's 5th, on Chicago's north and northwest sides, had been considered a machine-controlled district, held for decades by powerful former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski until he was indicted in 1994.

In '96, ward boss Dick Nell muscled his son-in-law into the seat, Rod Blagojevich. Emanuel won the seat in 2002 with the backing and foot soldiers of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. But this time there is no one favored Democratic organizational candidate.

Mr. CHARLIE WHEELAN (Economics Lecturer, University of Chicago): The crowded field is actually part of the appeal.

SCHAPER: Charlie Wheelan is an economics lecturer at the University of Chicago, making his first run for public office.

Mr. WHEELAN: Now, I can't beat a lot of these people head-to-head, but in a crowded field I don't have to. All I have to do is beat them collectively because there's no runoff. So, to me, it's actually an opportunity.

SCHAPER: Another political newcomer is labor and public interest lawyer Tom Geoghegan.

Mr. TOM GEOGHEGAN (Labor and Public Interest Lawyer): I'm running as a progressive candidate. I'm not running as an establishment candidate.

SCHAPER: Geoghegan has the backing of several prominent Chicago progressives, and last week he filed a federal lawsuit seeking a special election for the Senate seat filled by former Governor Blagojevich's controversial appointment of Roland Burris.

In the wake of the Burris and Blagojevich scandals, most of the candidates are trying to carry the mantle of reform.

State Representative JOHN FRITCHEY (Democrat): There's obviously been a checkered history in the 5th Congressional District, which is unfortunate.

SCHAPER: State Representative John Fritchey reminds voters of his key role on the Blagojevich impeaching committee.

Rep. FRITCHEY: Voters will remember that, you know, the same Illinois that's the Illinois of George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich is also the Illinois of Abraham Lincoln and Paul Simon and Barack Obama. That's the Illinois that I know and love and that's the Illinois that I'm trying to continue.

SCHAPER: But Fritchey's opponents remind voters he was the one who interrupted another committee member's questioning of Burris, allowing him to sidestep questions about how he got the Senate seat. Fritchey is the son-in-law of a de facto ward boss that has the most organizational support.

Mr. MIKE QUIGLEY (Cook County Commissioner): We're the reformer.

SCHAPER: Another reform candidate is Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, who invoked the theme of the presidential campaign in his bid for Congress.

Mr. QUIGLEY: The Obama race was about change - we've been the catalyst for change for ten years in Cook County. Fighting for them, against tax hikes and against corruption.

SCHAPER: Quigley's record of reform earned him the endorsements of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. If anyone can be considered the machine candidate, it would appear to be Alderman Patrick O'Connor, Mayor Daley's unofficial floor leader on the city council who promises to bring home the bacon.

Mr. PATRICK O'CONNOR (Alderman): I think that I've shown ability to bring tax dollars tangibly back to our community.

SCHAPER: But O'Connor doesn't have Mayor Daley's endorsement, nor Emanuel's. Both say they're staying out of the congested primary. And he hasn't raised much money. The candidate raising the most is State Representative Sarah Feigenholtz, endorsed by the Service Employees International Union, Emily's List, NOW and other women's groups.

State Representative SARAH FEIGENHOLTZ (Democrat): So, I want to go to Washington and I want to bring back health care for more Americans. I have a great track record.

SCHAPER: The only other woman in the Democratic primary is Jan Donatelli, a commercial airline pilot who used to fly for the Navy. And there are five other candidates running too. With this being the only race on the ballot, voters who can't make up their minds may just stay home. Turnout for Tuesday's primary is predicted to be around only 10 percent.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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