Thursday, August 10, 2006

No clear choice emerges to succeed retiring McKeon

No clear choice emerges to succeed retiring McKeon
By Gary Barlow
Copyright by The Chicago Free Press

Retiring Ill. state Rep. Larry McKeon’s choice of gay attorney Jim Snyder as his successor is generating only lukewarm support in the North Side district.

Consequently, other candidates are emerging, and the district’s leading political powers, particularly the five Democratic ward committeemen who have to pick a candidate to replace McKeon on the November election ballot, are still trying to develop a consensus.

McKeon, the state’s only openly gay legislator, notified the Illinois State Board of Elections July 28 that he was withdrawing his candidacy for reelection. In his public announcement, McKeon, who’s held the seat since 1997, recommended Snyder, his longtime aide and ally, for the seat. Since McKeon had no Republican opponent in the November general election, whomever the district’s ward committeemen pick to replace McKeon as the Democratic nominee is assured of winning the seat.

While McKeon’s support has helped Snyder, his resignation before nailing down Snyder’s nomination by the district’s ward committeemen has cost him some leverage in the decision. Snyder, who’s currently an attorney with the Illinois Commission on Human Rights, has confirmed support from just one of the five committeemen, the 46th Ward’s Tom Sharpe.

The others—Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th), Ald. Gene Schulter (47th), Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) and Mike Volini (48th)—haven’t committed to Snyder, and at least two other people are openly campaigning for the nomination. One, former Equality Illinois executive director Kevin Thompson, is gay, while the other, longtime Schulter ally Tom O’Donnell, is not.

O’Donnell ran for the seat once, losing to McKeon in the 1996 Democratic primary in McKeon’s first race for the job. If Schulter decides to back O’Donnell for the job, it would give him a leg up in the race. The ward committeemen’s votes are weighted in relation to the number of Democrats who voted in their wards in the last election, and Schulter’s 47th Ward produced the highest Democratic turnout, giving him close to 33 percent of the votes in this decision. But some gay activists are already making it known that they’ll be disappointed if another gay candidate isn’t chosen to replace McKeon. Thompson is well-liked by many in the gay community and as an African-American might also help counter the anti-gay rhetoric of conservative black minister and state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago/Calumet City) in the Illinois Legislature.

But Thompson, who let it be known months ago that he would be interested in McKeon’s seat if he stepped down, backed Edgewater banker Alexi Giannoulias for the Democratic nomination for Illinois Treasurer in the spring primary instead of Knox County State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri, who was the choice of Democratic Party leaders. Though Giannoulias beat Mangieri, party regulars have yet to warm up to Giannoulias, a factor that some may hold against Thompson in a contest in which Democratic ward leaders have all the votes.

O’Connor, who hasn’t committed to any candidate, and Sharpe also have large percentages of the votes, while Stone and Volini have a much smaller say in the contest.

Given that none of the three known candidates has emerged as the frontrunner, some North Side leaders are promoting another openly gay candidate—48th Ward Ald. Mary Ann Smith’s longtime chief of staff, Greg Harris. Harris is highly respected in both the gay community and in political circles in the district and may emerge as a consensus candidate.

Four of the five wards in the district have large concentrations of gay voters, a factor that has to be on the minds of the ward committeemen, and Harris’ strong reputation in the gay community would make him a popular choice among those voters. Harris’ history of successfully negotiating compromises in a ward that can be contentious and his 15 years of nuts-and-bolts experience in City Hall politics also carries appeal for the ward committeemen.

The ward committeemen are required to submit their choice to the Illinois State Board of Elections by Aug. 31. They’re expected to meet a few days before that deadline to make their decision.


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