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Cook County Democrats hope to agree on Jackson's successor

(MCT) — Cook County Democratic leaders plan to recommend a replacement for former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in an effort to winnow a growing field of hopefuls looking to take over the congressional district stretching from the South Side to Kankakee.

Gov. Pat Quinn was expected to decide by Monday on the early 2013 dates for the special primary and general elections, but already a swarm of has-been and wannabe political players are considering the rare opportunity to run in the suddenly open, solidly Democratic, black-majority 2nd Congressional District.

Jackson, a 17-year congressman, resigned Wednesday, just two weeks after winning re-election, citing his treatment for bipolar depression and also revealing that he was cooperating with an ongoing federal investigation into his alleged misuse of campaign funds.

Given the short time frame for a special election, and the chance for politicians to make a run for Congress without jeopardizing any office they currently hold, name recognition and dollars are of the utmost importance in trying to secure victory among a potentially crowded Democratic primary field. The winner of that race is likely to win the general election as well.

"You've got so many candidates who say they're going to be running, it could be a free-for-all," Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, chairman of the county's Democratic Party, said Friday. "We want to make sure we elect someone who works hard to represent everyone in Chicago, everyone in Cook County and everyone in the 2nd Congressional District."

To that end, the party will seek to slate a candidate for the primary election in the new Democrat-drawn congressional district that stretches from the South Side and south suburbs to include parts of Will County and all of Kankakee County. In the March primary that Jackson won, 89 percent of the votes cast by Democrats came from Chicago and suburban Cook County.

After easily winning a contested March primary, Jackson took a medical leave of absence from Congress in June and was never seen publicly by his constituents. Without running a campaign, he easily won re-election Nov. 6. He remained out of sight Friday.

Berrios said he has been in contact with ward and township Democratic committeemen who represent the Cook County portion of the district to prepare for an endorsement session to try to unify around a successor to Jackson.

"One reason (to slate) is to get everyone together in a room and see if we can solidify around a candidate," Berrios said. "If someone has the support of most of the committeemen, if one candidate can garner the most support, that will get them closer to the finish line."

Even if a lone candidate doesn't win the endorsement, Berrios said it could serve to winnow the field. Another factor that could reduce the size of the Democratic contest is the estimate by party leaders that candidates would need to raise at least $200,000 to $300,000 to be a viable contender.

Berrios said a slating session will be held once Quinn has set the election dates. Under state law, the latest elections could be held would be mid-March, though local election officials are seeking a Feb. 26 primary and April 9 general election to coincide with already scheduled municipal elections in an effort to reduce costs.

More primary and general election Democratic votes were cast in the five suburban Cook County townships than in the seven wards in the city located within the congressional district's boundaries. That could give an edge to a suburban contender, such as state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, an Olympia Fields Democrat in her third year in the General Assembly.

Hutchinson said she would be spending the next few days speaking with family, neighbors and community leaders "to explore a campaign for Congress."

Hutchinson was chief of staff to then-state Sen. Debbie Halvorson of Crete and was appointed to replace her in the General Assembly when Halvorson was elected to Congress in 2009. Halvorson, who lost re-election two years later, unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in the March primary and has signaled she might run again in the special election.

So far, Halvorson is the only white candidate among potential contenders. State Sen. Kwame Raoul, a prominent South Side Democrat who is not seeking the congressional seat, said he would try to play a broker role to prevent so many black candidates from running that it would "dilute the voting power of the African-American community."

"I think people will have to begin to look at elective offices as an opportunity to serve instead of an opportunity to have a title," Raoul said.

Another suburban contender is former NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris, of Flossmoor, who was just elected to the state Senate. Harris may have money — he lent his legislative campaign $227,000 — but his Nov. 6 victory was his first for a public office.

Former state lawmakers Robin Kelly of Matteson and David Miller of Lynwood also could be in the mix. Kelly lost a bid for state treasurer and now works in Cook County government while Miller, a dentist, was defeated in a bid for state comptroller. A Jackson ally, Miller said he was exploring a bid and would make a decision on whether to proceed "shortly."

In the city, Ald. Will Burns, 4th, moved closer on Friday to saying he was in the race.

"I'm very interested in running for the seat and I will be making an announcement shortly," said Burns, who has close ties to President Barack Obama. Burns, who served two years in the Legislature before winning his aldermanic seat, also has had past support from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, has previously expressed interest in the contest. Though he has not said he plans to run, he already has the backing of Ald. Carrie Austin, the Democratic committeewoman of the 34th Ward.

Also expressing an interest is state Sen. Donne Trotter, a veteran South Side Democratic lawmaker who made a failed bid for Congress in 2000 against Rep. Bobby Rush. Obama suffered his only election defeat in that same primary race.

Among those interested in the special election who are in the voter-discard pile are former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger and former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds. Stroger may have name identification but little campaign cash, while Reynolds had been Jackson's predecessor in Congress before being convicted in a sex scandal involving a 16-year-old campaign aide.

Defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., who represented now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, also has expressed interest in the job.

Democratic slating might help narrow the field, but it won't necessarily result in a front-runner, said John Fritchey, a Cook County commissioner who finished second to Rep. Mike Quigley in the 2009 special election to replace Rahm Emanuel in Congress. Fritchey narrowly lost the majority he needed to claim the party's endorsement in the 2009 race.

The keys to winning a special election are solid name recognition, strong fundraising capability and a plan for quickly connecting with voters, Fritchey said.

"Unlike a regular election, a special election like this one will be a sprint, not a marathon," Fritchey said, adding the advantage likely will go to experienced politicians.

"This is not a campaign for somebody who is new to this. You have to be prepared for a couple months of exhausting days where you can't really afford to have an off day," he said.

Tribune reporters John Chase and Ray Long contributed.

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