Dems fail to endorse a candidate in crowded race for Congressman Jackson's seat

December 15, 2012

WBEZ/Alex Keefe
Rich Township Democratic Committeeman Tim Bradford, left, talks with Thornton Township Committeeman Frank Zuccarelli during a break at Saturday's slating session.

The crowded field of candidates running to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress isn't getting any smaller.

Democratic Party bosses from Chicago's South Side and south suburbs failed to rally behind a single candidate at a slating session Saturday, despite hearing hours of political pitches from 16 candidates.

After about 90 minutes of private deliberations, the Democratic Committeemen emerged to announce they couldn't find enough common ground to endorse a single candidate, meaning the Feb. 26 primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat would be open.

“I think it’s gonna be a tough race,” said Thornton Township Committeeman Frank Zuccarelli, who chaired the slating committee. “But we’ve had tougher races in the past and we’ve been able to survive. So we’ve got confidence that the voters of the district are gonna make the right decision.”

Zuccarelli, who controlled about two-thirds of the weighted vote needed to get the party’s nod, still couldn’t convince other Chicago and suburban committeemen to back his chosen candidate, veteran State Sen. Donne Trotter.

Indeed, party bosses heaped the most praise upon Trotter during his turn at the lectern, despite his arrest at O’Hare International Airport last week after being caught with a handgun at a security checkpoint. Committeemen allowed Trotter to speak and answer questions for about 38 minutes – longer than any other candidate – but no one asked about his felony gun charge.

At one point, even Trotter seemed to acknowledge he was being softballed: “I don’t disagree with you saying I’m great,” he said, drawing laughter from the committeemen.

Under the arcane rules of Illinois Democratic Party slating, not all committeemen are created equal. Party bosses’ votes are weighted differently, based on the Democratic turnout in their district in the last primary.

The party’s failure to anoint a single chosen candidate means congressional hopefuls will jockey to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowded field.

“I don’t know that anything went wrong,” Zuccarelli said. “I think there were so many good candidates that it was difficult for everybody to decide who they wanted to vote for. There were several candidates that got lots of votes.”

But he refused to release the vote totals.

Notably absent from Saturday’s slating session was Jackson’s wife, Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, who had said earlier this week that she planned to attend. She apparently handed her more than 7,700 votes over to Zuccarelli, giving him 27,879 votes to award.

Alderman Jackson’s spot remained empty during the four hours of testimony from candidates, save for the purses that two committeewomen set on the chair that had been reserved for her.

The hopefuls who sought the backing of the powerful Democratic operation Saturday ranged from long-time pols to political long-shots, including pastors, a dentist and an ex-NFL player who was just elected to the Illinois State Senate.

“I’m running as a protest run, since we got 2,000 people running for this office, anyway,” said Will Crosby, self-described voting rights activist.

Other candidates who sought the party’s endorsement included Chicago Ald. Anthony Beale; former State Rep. Robin Kelly, who also served as chief of staff to an Illinois treasurer; State Sen. Toi Hutchinson; former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson; Rev. Anthony Williams; and State Sen.-elect Napoleon Harris, the former NFL player.

Democrats are strongly favored to win the heavily Democratic, predominately black 2nd Congressional District on the April 9 general election. A couple of Republicans have announced their candidacies, but the head of the state GOP says the party will not be picking favorites for the primary.