By Stump Connolly

Chicago is the LaBrea Tar Pits of politics. We go through twenty years of relative calm under a mayor who showcases the many splendors of the city around it, but as soon as he announces he is stepping down the primordial ooze begins gurgling to the surface.

Names that have surfaced so far as possible successors include White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, Congressmen Luis Gutierrez, Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Danny Davis; former senator Carol Moseley Braun and City Clerk Miguel Del Valle, both already declared candidates; Aldermen Scott Waguespack, Brendan Reilly, Tom Tunney, Bob Fioretti, Leslie Hairston and Tom Allen; former alderman Manny Flores, County Treasurer Maria Pappas, County Assessor James Houlihan, State Senator James Meeks, former city inspector general David Hoffman, City Colleges head Gery Chico, CTA board chairman Terry Peterson, State Comptroller Dan Hynes, perennial candidate William (“Doc”) Walls and my personal favorite, a man in a category of his own, State Sen. Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon, a West Side ward boss who is running on the promise of reopening Meigs Field to private jets.

If you are counting, that’s 23 people: what you might call a short list since Progress Illinois last Friday listed 49 politicians rumored, mulling over or already announced to be in the race.

Under Chicago’s recent shift to a non-partisan voting model, all will be competing in the February 22 mayoral primary for what will be only two slots in a presumed run-off election April 5.

Jockeying in the Paddock

Given that the filing deadline for Mayor is November 22, this week’s flurry of announcements amounts to little more than jockeying in the paddock. Candidates hoping for a shot parade their faces before the media cameras, praise or decry the reign of Mayor Daley––depending on where they believe their constituency lies––but nonetheless promise they are the agent of change Chicago so sorely needs.

Serious handicappers know, however, nothing will happen until Rahm Emanuel makes up his mind on whether to run. If Emanuel opts in, a lot of the other dynamics of the mayoral race will click into place. Upon his announcement, he would become the de facto front-runner. But the man or woman who would be Chicago’s next mayor will need a clever strategy to navigate the two-step election process. Like the TV game show Survivor, those candidates who are voted out will have a big hand in selecting who is voted in.

No Slam Dunk

Emanuel knows a mayoral run here is no slam dunk. Yes, he can probably get the money, but how deep are his roots in the murky world of ward politics? How will Chicagoans view a Washington insider returning to run the city? Does his sharp-elbowed negotiating style work for or against him here? And is Chicago ready for a Jewish mayor? The White House chief of staff has been meeting with other contenders to flog results of an internal poll he took showing he would be a strong contender. Gutierrez calls that “textbook” politics. “If there’s anyone who knows the textbook, it’s Rahm,” he told the Tribune.

I’m sure the possible opponents would be far more interested in seeing the results of focus groups Emanuel is also surely running. In the media, he comes across as foul-mouthed and abrasive. On the stump in his previous 5th District Congressional races, he was seen as aloof and inaccessible. There’s no question he has the brains to mastermind a successful mayoral campaign. The question is whether he can do it if he is the candidate.

Below The Surface

What’s going on now in the various campaigns––or should be––is all under the surface. Daley’s resignation has come early enough to give legitimate candidates enough time to raise money, assemble staffs, forge alliances and, probably most important, hone a message that will set them apart from their rivals.

On the surface, I would divide the field into three categories:

• The TV candidates – those people who should be able to muster enough money (the minimum is probably $2 million) to run a saturation media campaign. (These include Emanuel, Dart, Jackson, Hoffman and Chico.)

• The Tribal candidates – those hoping to emerge as the unified leader of various bloc voters. (The African-Americans among these are Braun, Meeks, Davis, Hairston, Walls and Hendon. The Hispanics are Gutierrez, Del Valle and Flores. Others with ethnic or political power bases are Allen, Pappas, Hynes and Tunney.)

* The Reformers – those who have broke ranks with Mayor Daley before and were contemplating a run as a reformer before his announcement (Jim Houlihan, Bob Fioretti, Scott Waguespack and Brendan Reilly.)

Subterranean Politics

What’s most intriguing about the mayoral race at this early stage is just how murky the subterranean politics are. Mayor Daley has run Chicago for so long with so many tentacles out to all the interests groups that there are no clear leaders in either the African-American or reform categories, and probably two too many among Hispanics.

Among the candidates in the TV-capable category, Jesse Jackson Jr. ‘s bid has already imploded with new allegations stemming from his attempt to get Blagojevich to name him Obama’s Senate successor. (Fair warning to other candidates: do not invite U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald to “Bring it on!) Gery Chico has experience and support in the business community, but not in his own Latino backyard, where he is eclipsed by both Gutierrez and Del Valle. And David Hoffman, both independently wealthy and reform-credentialed, is coming off a less than stellar performance last Spring in his Senate primary race against Alexi Giannoulias.

The Unknown Candidates

More than one black leader (and, believe me, there are more than one) has suggested the African-American community has not coalesced around a candidate because that candidate has not yet emerged. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t out looking for him or her. The ministers are meeting. The talk shows are talking. But old rivalries between the West Side and the South Side make unity difficult.

Similarly, no reform candidates have jumped out of the pack with big ideas to stir men’s souls. Don Rose, for instance, the political consultant who upended the Democratic machine with Jane Bryne in 1979 and helped Harold Washington win in 1983, hasn’t received a single call from a contender.

Watch Claypool

Because Stump abhors a vacuum, let me suggest one more name that would really throw a monkey wrench into the race: Forrest Claypool.

Claypool was not only Daley’s first administrative assistant and head of the Chicago Park District, he was a leader of the reform coalition on the county board and narrowly lost the presidency to Todd Stroger.

Like Emanuel, Claypool enjoys the friendship and support of Obama’s and Daley’s  political advisor David Axelrod (They started Axelrod & Associates together in 1988.) and was part of the team that brought Daley into office in 1989.

Claypool is now locked in a tight race with County Democratic chairman Joe Berrios for Cook County Assessor. He is running as an independent in a three-way race––a hard row to hoe––but he got there by getting 90,000 names on his nominating petitions, all from bona fide independent voters, when only 25,000 were needed.

He has enough money to present his credentials as a reformer in the weeks leading up to the election, and he’s given a good chance of beating Berrios. If he wins, Claypool will be a leading voice  in choosing the reform candidate for mayor. If he loses, it may well be because Berrios and Claypool  split the Democratic vote, opening the door for Republican challenger Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall to take office, and giving Claypool the opportunity to become that candidate himself.

If Emanuel somehow opts out, and Claypool opts in, it would both complicate and untangle the fragile alliances now coming together. Who knows? There are a lot of bubbles in the cauldron right now that might just come together.

I’m not saying it’s going to happen. I’m just saying it could.

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