Who Wants to Be Next Mayor of Chicago?

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Left; Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images: Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, left, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley

How big is the news that Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago will not seek re-election for a seventh term in 2011? "It's huge," says U.S. Representative Mike Quigley, a former Cook County Commissioner who taught Chicago politics at Loyola and Roosevelt Universities for seven years. "Only in Chicago would this pre-empt an election for a governor, for a senator and for many other seats. People outside of Illinois just don't understand it. The mayor and his father [Richard J. Daley] were arguably the two most powerful, most important local elected officials in the history of the United States." Says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now chairs the University of Illinois at Chicago's Political Science department: "Many people think the job of Chicago's mayor is more important than the job of governor."

That may explain why so many people want the job. However, given the surprise announcement, few of them were immediately prepared to throw their hat into the ring, including White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, Quigley's predecessor in Illinois' 5th Congressional District, who has talked about his desire to be Chicago's mayor. Yet whoever wants to run for mayor has little time to get ready — and little time to figure out how to campaign, given Chicago's electoral rules. Potential candidates must file petitions to run by Nov. 22 for the election that takes place the last Tuesday in February. "I think this is going to be a really brutal battle for succession," says Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who isn't running for mayor but is stepping down to run for Cook County Board president. "Petitions have to be in less than 90 days. While 12,500 signatures are required, you'd better collect 40,000 or 50,000 because surely there will petition challenges. That requires an affective organization, and favors those with high name recognition and a good deal of money in their political campaign chest."

If a candidate doesn't win at least 50% of the vote, then a run-off election, a first for a Chicago mayoral race, would take place on the first Tuesday in April. "It's like spring training and baseball: everybody thinks they can win," jokes Quigley, who hasn't ruled out running for the office himself. "But you have to be viable, have a lot of resources and good name recognition because it's a close, short race."

Many politicians have mentioned an interest in running. Congressman Luis Gutierrez has already announced that he has formed an exploratory committee. Gutierrez, Emanuel and Jesse Jackson Jr. are considered the front runners, according to John Brehm, University of Chicago professor of political science. "Rahm Emanuel is closely connected with Chicago and he has a demeanor to negotiate and deal with the unsavory world of Chicago politics," Brehm says. "[Emanuel leaving the White House] would be a significant loss for Obama, and I'm sure he feels an obligation to him, but this is something he's wanted to do for a while." Even though Jackson Jr. was more than a passing subject in the trial of impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich this summer, Brehm contends the fallout would be minimal. "Yes he was tarred a bit, but not too explicitly," he said. Jackson's supporters allegedly offered millions of dollars in campaign donations to Blagojevich in exchange for Jackson's nomination to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. Gutierrez has had his own share of problems, including allegedly helping his daughter get hired in the Blagojevich administration; he was also under scrutiny by the FBI for an alleged $200,000 loan from a campaign contributor.

"This is Chicago politics, by definition there are going to be bones in almost everyone's closet," says Don Gordon, a Northwestern University adjunct political science professor, who ran for alderman from Chicago's 49th Ward in 2007. "There are very few people who could run for office and not have something lurking in their past that an aggressive opponent will nail them to the wall with, and unless its really egregious it won't matter. Probably the only one who will have a real problem if he runs is Jesse Jackson Jr. because we will be knee-deep in the [Blagojevich] re-trial again [in January]."

Other potential candidates include Illinois Commerce Commission chairman Manny Flores, who said he has been asked to run by many in the civic and business community; Chicago Transit Authority chairman Terry Peterson; Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, Illinois State Rep. Kwame Raoul. Also mentioned are a number of alderman, including Sandi Jackson (who is Jesse Jackson Jr.'s wife) and Bob Fioretti, who told TIME that he is likely to run and may give official notice in a few days.

"All the speculation right now is on the usual suspects," Gordon says. "But I think we are going to see some surprises with people coming out of the woodwork, for no other reason that it's Chicago politics. This is a free-for-all and unusual situation." One Republican alderman, Brian Doherty, is also considered a possible candidate. But the GOP would have an enormous hill to climb to win the mayor's office. The history of Democratic control over the city and Cook County dates back to Anton Cermak, who won Chicago's mayoral election 1931 and created Chicago's original political machine. However, Gordon says, "the door could open for an unknown Republican candidate given the political climate outside of Chicago."

Apart from the huge clout and influence of being mayor of Chicago, what would the winner get? The problems of Chicago. The city, likely without any help from the nearly bankrupt state of Illinois, faces a $654.7 million budget shortfall in its 2011 budget of $3.39 billion, according to a July 30 estimate. "There's no secret that this city is suffering a bit financially, with a close to a $700 million deficit in next budget cycle," says Alderman Sandi Jackson. "Whoever comes in as Daley's successor is going to have to fix some problems."