Democratic officials from Chicago will meet Monday at a West Side restaurant to try to replace the outspoken, controversial and dramatic ex-Illinois state Sen. Rickey Hendon. A crowded field of candidates includes two now-well-known political novices - one who shook up the races for Illinois governor and lieutenant governor last year, and another who shook up the recent race for Chicago mayor.
The decision of who will replace Hendon, who shocked his colleagues by submitting a letter of resignation in late February, will be made by the 13 elected Democratic ward committeemen who represent portions of the Fifth Senate District. The vote is weighted, based on how many votes each ward cast for Hendon in 2008, when the seat was last up for election. Whichever candidate can secure more than 50 percent of the weighted vote gets the seat for the final two years of the term.
Former lieutenant governor and governor candidate Scott Lee Cohen claimed that "several" committee members approached him about applying for the Senate seat.
"I honestly don't think it's right or fair to reveal their names," said Cohen, who withdrew as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor last year, following allegations of steroid and domestic abuse. He later launched an independent bid for governor.
Explaining his interest in the state Senate seat, Cohen said, "Ever since I wanted to be involved in politics my main focus was job creation and protecting the people of the state of Illinois. Of course, being a state senator [would give] me the opportunity - I [would] have a voice, I [would] have a vote, and a tremendous way to protect my constituents."
Cohen said Friday morning that he was still unsure whether he would end up going for the appointment. But later in the day, his spokeswoman, Kathy Posner, said Cohen had decided to submit his resume to the selection committee.
Another potential contender is Patricia Van Pelt Watkins - a minister, former non-profit leader and candidate for mayor.
"I want to serve. I want to serve. I want to serve. And I believe that I have the right temperament and also the right ideas, to bring the kind of change that Chicago needs," Watkins said. "And a...state Senate seat here in the 5th District, makes all the sense in the world."
Watkins emerged from political obscurity to influence the race for mayor - less through her vote total (she won less than 2 percent) than through her clashes with the only other woman on the ballot, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. Braun was forced to apologize to Watkins after accusing her of being "strung out on crack" in recent years. Watkins has acknowledged drug use three decades ago, though she said she never used crack.
Watkins said she was approached by two committee members who gauged her interest in the Senate appointment, but on Friday morning said she was not confident she has their votes.
"You have to trust the committeemen to navigate through the process themselves, because there's nothing that a potential candidate can do from the outside," Watkins said. "Once they get in the room and they start talking and sharing ideas and coming up with different scenarios, it can come out any kind of way. We don't know how it's going to come out."
The most weighted votes - about a quarter of them - are controlled by 24th Ward Ald. Sharon Denise Dixon, who is also the ward's committeewoman. Her spokesman, Frank Watkins, said Thursday that Dixon is meeting with candidates and "still considering her options."
Complicating the political calculus of the selection process is Dixon's own political peril. She faces a tough city council re-election fight from Michael Chandler, the ward's former alderman who narrowly lost to Dixon in 2007.
In fact, Chandler himself has popped up as a possible contender for the Senate seat. Chandler said the possibility was brought to him by former 28th Ward Ald. Ed Smith, who is still the ward committeeman there, and holds close to 14 percent of the weighted vote. Chandler said he told Smith he wasn't interested. There's "no way in hell...I would force-feed Sharon Dixon on my constituents" by giving her a free ride in the runoff, Chandler said.
Asked about that conversation, Smith said he was only asking Chandler if he was thinking about the Senate seat, and said Chandler is "a close friend" who once headed his ward organization. Smith, who resigned from the city council last fall, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate, but said Thursday he was not seeking the seat.
A member of Smith's political organization is going for it. State Rep. Annazette Collins occupies one of the two House seats that make up the 5th Senate District. (The other is Art Turner, Jr., who was only elected this past fall, and whose father was engaged in a bitter and protracted rivalry with Hendon.)
Collins said she heard from Senate Pres. John Cullerton (a Democrat, though one who does not have any official votes in the process) that she is a "frontrunner" to replace Hendon. She said it would be refreshing to move to a new chamber, and "be more of a leader, [have] more of a voice" on issues related to housing and poverty.
Others interested in the Senate appointment include Frank Bass, who was one of 17 challengers to Dixon in last month's election, Roxanne Nava, an official with the state Department of Commerce and Economic Development, and Bruce L. Jackson, executive director of Gift House, an organization that offers testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Jackson unsuccessfully ran for the legislature last year, and for 24th Ward Alderman in 2003.
On Monday, interested candidates will speak to the selection committee for ten minutes each at Moretti's, a West Loop pizza restaurant. The meeting will be chaired by Sec. of State Jesse White, who - in his position as 27th ward committeeman - controls close to 17 percent of the weighted vote.
White said Friday he is not leaning toward a particular candidate, though he acknowledged some applicants could put together enough commitments prior to the meeting to win a majority of the weighted vote.
"I just want to make sure that we select the best person to represent the people of the Fifth District," White said. "And we want to make sure that person is a perfect fit for Springfield, and can be put in a posture by which they can become re-elected" in 2012.
That final goal is muddied a bit by legislative redistricting, set to take place in the next few months. With the city losing some 200,000 residents in the latest census, Rickey Hendon's Fifth District could be a lot different than his successor's.
In addition to White, Smith and Dixon, the other Democratic committeemen with some say in the matter are Ald. Bob Fioretti (about 16 percent of the weighted vote), county commissioner John Fritchey (7 percent), Ald. Danny Solis (6 percent), John Corrigan (5 percent), Ald. Emma Mitts (3 percent), aldermanic candidate Michele Smith (3 percent), Jesse Juarez (3 percent), Ald. Ric Munoz (1 percent), Ald. Roberto Maldonado (1 percent) and county commissioner John Daley (a small fraction of 1 percent).
White said the applicants' presentations will be open to the public, but the committee's "decision process" will not be. He said he plans to announce the new senator by 5 p.m. on Monday.
Updated on 3/11/11 at 3:31 p.m.