Can the votes of a handful of Chicago and Cook County residents change Illinois? We are about to find out.
Winning 22 percent of the vote is not usually considered an overwhelming mandate, but winners write the history books. And Democrat Mike Quigley's congressional primary victory last week is already being touted as an occasion worthy of at least a chapter.
Cook County Commissioner Quigley defeated 11 candidates, including two state legislators, to win the 5th Congressional District special primary election last Tuesday with 12,100 votes. His smart, well-managed campaign was vastly outspent by his top two opponents.
Quigley successfully tapped into rising voter anger in the wake of Rod Blagojevich's arrest, Roland Burris' US Senate appointment and, most importantly, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's tax hikes and innumerable missteps.
This is not rocket science. Freshman Rep. Mark Walker (D-Arlington Heights) spent several months last year carrying a petition from door to door against Stroger's tax hikes. Stroger and Blagojevich were the objects of attack by both parties last year, quite often with success. And with the economy in freefall, voters are even more sensitive to tax increases than before.
For whatever reason, no other top tier Democratic candidate used these potent issues until it was too late. Quigley went into the race leading in all the polls partly because he was widely seen as a Stroger nemesis and a budget hawk. He sent out early, unanswered and well-done direct mail which burnished his reputation further. His twin newspaper endorsements, based mainly on his independence and anti Stroger and anti tax ways, made it impossible for one of his opponents to tie him to Stroger with a last-minute TV ad.
Last Tuesday was the first time Democratic voters have had an opportunity to express their outrage at the dismal state of their party's affairs. The humiliation many Democrats have suffered after the ecstasy of Barack Obama's win apparently proved too much to bear.
The two candidates most closely affiliated with the regular organization received a combined 29 percent of the vote. Quigley even won some wards that "reformers" normally don't, and finished a close second in several more.
In other words, the vast majority of Democrats told their precinct captains "No." That doesn't happen too often, to say the least. Several people who walked precincts last Tuesday reported witnessing a tangible anger at the doors. Quigley was the only candidate who really expressed any outrage at the current situation, and it worked.
So, is Quigley's win the start of something new or just a fluke? Well, the district does include some of the more liberal areas of Chicago. And, of course, this was a special election, not the "real" thing. But the serious mistakes by those in charge are coinciding with an obvious decline in the regular organization's strength.
Precinct captains are getting older and are less motivated since their jobs and promotions are no longer on the line. This isn't universal. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's organization is still strong, as are others.
The far more serious problem is that the Machine has foisted too many candidates on voters - like Stroger and Blagojevich - who have thoroughly repulsed the electorate. The organization is rapidly losing its credibility.
Even if this is not a shift, politicians are sure to take notice, particularly state legislators who are likely to face a tax hike vote within weeks. Quigley brutally attacked two of his state legislator opponents for supporting a small local sales tax hike to bail out public transit agencies.
Gov. Pat Quinn is probably closer to Quigley in populist temperament and ideology than anyone, but he, too, is faced with the uncomfortable task of raising revenues in what appears to be an increasingly hostile environment. Some voters might have ignored Stroger's perceived incompetence if it wasn't for the fact that his incompentence was subsidized by tax hikes.
Maybe voters will calm down by next year. Or not. President Stroger appears set to run for reelection, so he'll be a constant reminder of the Democratic Party's mistakes. Blagojevich's new "tell all" book is expected to arrive on newsstands by then, accompanied by yet another national media tour. And then there are the potential state tax increases which won't help matters much.
That angry fire could spread and burn a while longer.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com