By Lynn Sweet and Abdon M. Pallasch
Speculation about potential successors to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald started as soon as he announced Wednesday he was stepping down.
But an initial hurdle is for the Illinois senators -- one Democrat, one Republican -- to agree on a nominee or risk never getting a confirmation vote in the Senate.
Sen. Dick Durbin has the lead in making a recommendation to the White House because there is a Democratic president and Durbin is a Democrat. But because of how the Senate operates, Sen. Mark Kirk, the Republican, has the power to block a nomination.
When the job was last vacant, former Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald bucked pressure from his own party to select a Chicago lawyer and instead sent the name of a New Yorker -- Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) -- to former President George W. Bush, insisting on an outsider to lessen the potential of conflicts of interest.
The choice "put the blindfolds back on justice in Chicago," the former senator told the Chicago Sun-Times.
"I would hope that Sen. Kirk and Sen. Durbin would recommend someone who is not connected to the political class in Chicago or Springfield. And that they also look for someone who could not be pressured or controlled," Peter Fitzgerald said Wednesday.
While many lawyers in Chicago are smart with "great experience," Peter Fitzgerald argued that the next federal prosecutor here should be someone who "the politicians in Chicago and Springfield don't have something on."
This is the first U.S. attorney opening that Durbin and Kirk -- who was elected in 2010 -- have been confronted with.
The last two U.S. attorneys in Illinois -- in the southern and central districts -- were confirmed earlier in 2010, when former Democratic Sen. Roland Burris affirmed Durbin's recommendations. Before that, Durbin worked with fellow Democrat Barack Obama -- then a senator -- who replaced Peter Fitzgerald.
The process of finding a replacement may get caught up in election year politics -- where control of the White House and the Senate could change after November.
Because U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, Durbin and Kirk could just wait until after the election to forward a name.
Durbin's spokesman said the senator has yet to decide on how he will proceed.
After Durbin sends a name to the White House, it could take some time for the person to be vetted. Once the president taps a nominee, the name is sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Durbin is a member.
The nominee then is vetted again by both Republicans and Democrats on the committee, but only if both senators from the home state give a green light to proceed.
"It's very hard to find somebody that you would really have confidence has no connections with the political class. I would hope the press would thoroughly scrutinize the names that are floated for U.S. attorney," Peter Fitzgerald said.
Among the names surfacing Wednesday:
† Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, who convicted former Gov. George Ryan and headed up Gov. Pat Quinn's Reform Committee. Collins would not comment Wednesday on his interest in the position. However, when he left the U.S. attorney's office in 2006, Collins' going-away gift was a jacket embroidered with the words "Assistant U.S. Attorney." Even then, Collins put his finger over the word "Assistant," then smiled wide.
† Former Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hoffman, who occasionally butted heads with Mayor Richard J. Daley as his inspector general. Hoffman's 2010 Illinois Senate Democratic primary bid may taint him as too partisan.
† Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Tarun.
† Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar, who convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich
† City of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson.
† Former U.S. Attorney Dan Reidy, who convicted Cook County Circuit Court judges in the Operation Greylord investigation.
† Attorney Ann Tighe, wife of former Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan, was a finalist in consideration for the post back when former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar was chosen for the job.
† The names of three highly regarded African-American attorneys -- former Assistant U.S. attorneys Z. Scott and Andrea Zopp and Cook County Circuit Court Judge William Hooks -- were floated by Ald. Howard Brookins, chair of the Chicago City Council's Black Caucus. Brookins urged consideration of minority candidates for the post.
† Attorney Ronald Safer, who is among the rare defense lawyers to have won cases in the federal courthouse over the last several years, including for clients in the Conrad Black case.
† Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez or Sheriff Tom Dart.
Or it could just be a player not on the radar. Said Rep. Mike Quigley, "My assumption is we don't know who this person is. If they're smart, they'll be like the current one."
Contributing: Natasha Korecki