BY ABDON M. PALLASCH
Chicago Sun-Times Political Reporter
CHICAGO--The two-tiered dias at which 19 Democratic ward and township committeemen sat Saturday at the Zam Zam Banquet Hall on the Northwest Side looked like a wedding head table. There was elegant white bunting and mirrored walls, and canopied tables with coffee and cookies and doughnuts sat off to the side.
But none of the five would-be grooms could quite muster the 50 percent-plus-1 of the weighted vote to be officially joined to the Democratic Party of Cook County as slated candidate to replace former Rep. Rahm Emanuel.
So it's every man or woman for himself or herself for the next 50 days, in this abbreviated primary election likely to determine who will represent Emanuel's district in Congress.Emanuel has given up his seat to become President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff.
Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th), Mayor Daley's unofficial floor leader, had said as late as Friday night that he had close to enough votes to wrap up the endorsement, and he had pleaded with his fellow committeemen not to "shirk their responsibility" by declaring an "open primary." That's what backers of State Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, had sought .
Luckily for O'Connor, they did not grant his wish because when the votes came in, Fritchey got about three times as many as O'Connor, though not enough to hit the 50 percent-plus-1 mark.
Committeemen of the close to 20 city wards and two suburban townships in the district that stretches from Lincoln Park to Franklin Park are accorded a share of the "weighted vote" based on how many Democrats voted in their districts in the most recent primary election.
Fritchey got 61,529 of the 62,883-plus-1 votes it would have taken to be slated. O'Connor got a mere 22,901. Committeemen backing an open primary cast another 41,341 votes.
That occurred when some of the committeemen from the most vote-rich wards defected from O'Connor to Fritchey, including Ald. William J.P. Banks (36th); State Rep. Joseph Lyons, acting as proxy for the 45th Ward committeeman Patrick Levar, and 38th Ward Committeewoman P.J. Cullerton.
Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th) said he decided as he drove to Saturday morning's meeting to fold his campaign and instead throw his support behind Fritchey.
O'Connor told the committeemen one of his main hesitations in waiting until Saturday to firmly throw his hat in the ring was the fact that he is about to become a grandfather.
"Grandchildren are your reward for not killing your children," Lyons told O'Connor.
"I never wanted to kill my children," O'Connor chuckled.
That prompted Ald. Dick Mell (33rd), who lived to regret helping install his son-in-law Rod Blagojevich as governor, to muse that he had contemplated killing some unnamed relatives -- "Not blood relatives," he said -- prompting howls of laughter.
Family ties were a constant undercurrent at this slating.
Banks has served with O'Connor in the City Council for nearly 30 years, and was an early enthusiastic supporter. But Fritchey is married to his niece. There reportedly has been friction between Fritchey and Banks, who was said to be irritated about Fritchey's entry into the race. But apparently, they worked it out.
Ald. Levar's wife works in Emanuel's office, and is expected to keep her post no matter who wins.
Questions emerged after the slating about whether Mell offered to give Schulter increased say in Fritchey's state house replacement if he would back Fritchey, whose district is partially in Schulter's ward. Schulter denied cutting a deal to get another one of his guys a statehouse seat, saying he already has a good state rep, Greg Harris, who represents the other half of hs ward.
O'Connor denied rumors he was running to keep the seat warm for Emanuel should Emanuel want to reclaim it, saying nobody would put this much effort into winning a seat to be a "place-holder."
Michelle Smith, the new committeewoman of the 43rd Ward, argued with O'Connor about his suggestion that "...as committemen we 'shirk our responsibilities' by supporting an open primary."
"I disagree," she said, noting that Barack Obama never would have been slated to be the Democratic candidate for president, she said.
"I don't know if we're shirking our responsibilities if we fail to endorse someone," she said. "I wonder if we are embracing our responsibilities to build involvement and to revitalize this party. I am quite concerned that should we choose on just three days' notice to slate a candidate, we will turn off the voters."
O'Connor has made a name for himself as chairman of the City Council's Education Committee, and helped create the city's flagship Northside College Prep High School. Despite his low showing Saturday, he maintained he is in the race to stay, telling the committeemen that an open primary leaves the race to "the person who raises the most money, the person who has the best PR firm."
Fritchey, who has been in the legislature for 12 years and worked on ethics legislation with Obama, admits he is getting into the race late and having to match war chests that well exceed his, but said he hopes to come from behind.
Asked what he intends to do for the district's 25 percent Hispanic population, he noted that his grandmother's name was "Mercedes Garcia." His mother is from Morocco and he has Franch and Spanish roots, he said.
The committeemen also heard from Dr. Victor Forys; National Security expert Justin Oberman, whose father was an alderman; and Frank Annunzio, relative and namesake of a former congressman from the district.
Some of the biggest names in the race, such as State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, and Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley, did not attend the slating.