September 18, 2002


Among the quartet of major Cook County Democratic officeholders, known as the “Big Four” – Sheriff Mike Sheahan, Assessor Jim Houlihan, Treasurer Maria Pappas, and Clerk David Orr, all Chicagoans – there’s a sense of cautious expectancy, coupled with growing anxiety.

That anxiety, however, relates not to the November election, when each of the Big Four is seeking re-election; instead, it relates to the Feb. 25, 2003 Chicago mayoral election. Will Mayor Rich Daley seek re-election? And the expectation is that, if Daley doesn’t run, each of the Big Four would have a plausible chance of winning that big prize.

It should be emphasized that Daley, age 60, has dissembled and equivocated on his 2003 plans. Daley constantly boasts that he enormously enjoys being Chicago’s mayor, but he has pointedly refrained from making a declaration of his intent to seek re-election. One factor in his decision is the health of his wife, Maggie, who was diagnosed with cancer. Another factor is the outcome of the Illinois governor’s race; it is presumed that Daley would be very pleased to have Rod Blagojevich as governor, coupled with a Democrat-controlled legislature. That would mean that Daley’s state “wish list” – one item being the governor’s support for funding for new runways at O’Hare – would be satisfied.

But the salient fact is that any 2003 mayoral candidate must file nominating petitions bearing 25,000 signatures by Dec. 16. The procurement of those signatures takes money and manpower, and must commence now. And any viable mayoral bid will cost upwards of $2 million, so fundraising must commence now. But the reality is that Daley will not make a decision before the Nov. 5 general election, and may wait for weeks thereafter. And nobody can start running for mayor until after the Mayor decides whether to run or quit.

For Daley, there is no obvious heir apparent. His father, Richard J. Daley, never groomed a successor. But the mayor has a luxury: He can wait until the end of November to announce his retirement, and can then dictate his successor. The Democratic organization’s precinct captains could easily get 25,000 signatures in a week. The most obvious Daley-picked successor would be one of his brothers – SBC executive and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, or Cook County Commissioner John Daley – or Southwest Side U.S. Representative Bill Lipinski (D-3). But none seem inclined to run.

At present, there is no white Chicago alderman with the credibility and finances to run. City Clerk Jim Laski, no Daley ally, would certainly run if there is a vacancy. If Blaogjevich loses for governor, he’d be a potential candidate. The most formidable black candidate would be U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2); if he didn’t run, then former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun would be a credible alternative. The most formidable Hispanic would be U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4).

The February election is non-partisan, with an April runoff among the top two contenders if nobody secures a majority. The 2000 census pegged Chicago’s population of 2,896,016 as being 44 percent white, 37 percent black, and 19 percent Hispanic. Because Hispanic turnout is anemic, the proportional percentage breakout of primary voters is in the realm of 51 white/43 black/six Hispanic.

That means that a single prominent black candidate is sure to make the runoff, and would face a white opponent.

In reality the Big Four is really the Big Five, as County Board president John Stroger, who is black, must be included. But Stroger, a Daley ally, is 71 years old, and is fighting cancer. He will not run for mayor, and will win a third term as board president easily over Republican Christopher Bullock, the black pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church of Chicago. Stroger will support in 2003 whomever the mayor dictates.

Here’s a brief analysis of the prospects of the Big Four, should one or more of them run for mayor in 2003:

Sheriff: Sheahan, age 56, has an Achilles’ heel. He was the 19th Ward alderman from 1979 to 1990, and he was part of the Vrdolyak 29 during the Harold Washington years. As such, his support in the black community is minimal. But he has been an active and competent sheriff, and not a whiff of corruption or favoritism attaches to his regime. And, over the past 12 years, with his anti-crime seminars and public relations, he has engendered enormous goodwill.

Sheahan in 1990 defeated Republican incumbent Jim O’Grady, who got himself mired in scandal after only one term, by 335,680 votes (55.4 percent), in a four-candidate race. In 1994, Sheahan was re-elected by 463,427 votes over Republican John Tourtelot. In 1998, Sheahan was re-elected by 517,115 votes over LeRoy Martin, the black former Chicago police superintendent. In 2002, Sheahan faces Republican Ron Swick, a 31-year Chicago police officer. Sheahan will likely win by more than 600,000 votes.

Sheahan can be sheriff for life if he so chooses. But any sheriff sits atop a time bomb. If there’s a major race riot at the over-crowded County Jail; or if there’s a major escape, and the escapee kills or maims some civilians; or if an off-duty correctional officer, sheriff’s police officer, or courtroom deputy shoots, rapes, molests, or abuses somebody, then Sheahan takes the heat.

If Sheahan runs for mayor, he’d be the law-and-order, stability candidate. But crime is not rampant in Chicago, so that theme will not resonate. Nevertheless, his Southwest Side base, coupled with the enormous goodwill he has engendered over the past 12 years, would certainly put him in contention, and would likely make him a second-place finisher.

Treasurer: The late Eddie Rosewell’s 24-year reign (1974-98) as county treasurer ranks was a breathtaking example of sloth and incompetence. Property tax payments were not deposited for months; tax bills were not mailed on time; alleged tax-delinquent properties were sold without due notice. Pappas promised to “reform” the office, and she has tried mightily. But glitches remain. Tax bills are still late. Some homeowners still get their homes sold. Nevertheless, the bad old Rosewell days have vanished.

Pappas, age 52, was a county commissioner for eight years before being elected treasurer in 1998. She lives on the Lakefront, is of Greek ancestry, and has a financial base in that community. She is an enormously personable and beguiling candidate. And, if she ran for mayor, and was the only white female candidate, she’d have a good chance to make the runoff in large field of white male candidates. Plus, she has a solid financial base in the Greek-American community, and could raise plenty of money for a TV blitz.

Her November opponent is Republican Richard Daniels, a Chicago software consultant and business development manager. Pappas won her first term by 668,165 votes. She’ll win her second term by at least as much. If she goes for mayor, she’d have a good chance to finish in the top two.

Clerk: Incumbent David Orr may be a man whose time has passed. Orr, age 55, was the 49th Ward (Rogers Park) alderman from 1979 to 1990, when he was elected clerk. As alderman, he was a backer of Harold Washington, and was vice-mayor. After Washington’s death, he was elevated to the acting mayor’s job for a few days. When he ran for clerk in 1990, against two white foes, he had massive support among blacks, winning the primary over two opponents with 55 percent .

But Orr, who is now immersed in raising a young family, has been virtually invisible for the past half-decade. He was elected in 1990 by 426,931 votes, re-elected in 1994 by 338,687 votes, and re-elected in 1998 by 668,165. Orr will easily beat Republican Kathleen Thomas, a Lakefront businesswoman, in 2002. Orr has indisputably upgraded the performance of the Clerk’s, in both election administration and tax redemption. But, if Orr runs for mayor, his base – among blacks and Lakefront liberals – will be fractured. Orr’s only shot at being mayor would be if no prominent black ran, and Orr managed to get into a runoff with somebody like Sheahan, a Daley, or Lipinski. Then he would get solid black support, plus Lakefront liberal backing – and could win. But a lot of his Lakefront support could be siphoned off by Pappas. Don’t count on Orr to run.

Assessor: Incumbent Jim Houlihan, age 59, was born in the Southwest Side 19th Ward, but moved to the Lakefront, and was a two-term state representative from the Lincoln Park area from 1975-78. He then got a job in the assessor’s office and, when longtime incumbent Tom Hynes (1978-97) resigned in 1997, Hynes engineered the selection of Houlihan as his successor. Houlihan was elected to the post in 1998 by a 638,021-vote margin. His 2002 opponent is Northwest Side attorney Jim Pieczonka, a former administrative law judge with the Illinois Department of Revenue. Houlihan will win overwhelmingly.

Houlihan’s clout is Hynes, the 19th Ward Democratic Committeeman, but Sheahan is the former 19th Ward alderman. If Sheahan runs for mayor, expect Houlihan to take a pass.

The bottom line: Each of the Big Four will win re-election in November. But if Daley retires as mayor, expect the Big Two – Sheahan and Pappas – to fight it out to be Number Two in the February primary, along with Laski. Whichever one makes the runoff will surely be Chicago’s next mayor.