Tom Geoghegan Is A Progressive Running to Replace Rahm Emanuel In Illinois’ Fifth; He Could Win

Update: Thursday, February 19:

Tom Geoghegan has just been endorsed in the Fifth District Democratic primary by Democrats for America (DFA).  

By James M. Wall                                  


At last count, 14 candidates are competing in the special March 3 Democratic primary to fill Rahm Emanuel’s Illinois 5th Congressional District seat. There will be an April 7 General Election, but this is Chicago, so the primary will pick the next congressman from the Fifth.

Don Rose, veteran independent political operative and columnist, describes the district in a recent Chicago Sun Times column:

The 5th is the second-toughest Machine-controlled Democratic congressional district in Chicago. It differs slightly from the conservative 3rd District because of a handful of independent-liberal lakefront precincts comprising 18 percent of the vote. 

Rose knows the territory. His reform credentials date back to the days of Harold Washington. Over the years, he has not endeared himself to the Machine, which is more formally known as the Cook County Democratic Central Committee whose ward committeemen members are closely aligned with Chicago’s mayor, a position held by Richard J. Daley for 21 years and now by his son, Richard M. Daley, first elected in 1989.

High profile congressmen from the Fifth have included Dan Rostenkowski, who served the district for 36 years before his imprisonment on fraud charges, and Rod Blagojevich, who stopped by the district long enough to become governor before he crashed and burned. 

Rahm Emanuel held the seat between two stints in the White House, first with Bill Clinton, and now as Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff. Emanuel also managed to shoe horn in two years out of politics in the world of financial deal making, during which time he built a $18 million personal kitty and an enhanced rolodex, both of which were assets in his successful run to become Blagojevich’s successor.

There are only two weeks left until the March 3 primary.  The three leading Democratic candidates are the “usual suspects” in Chicago Democratic primaries, two state representatives, Sara Feigenholtz and John Fritchey, and one Cook County Commissioner, Mike Quigley. Two other candidates identified by Don Rose as “legacy” candidates, are sons of former heavyweight Chicago office holders.

Emanuel entered his initial race for the district with the Machine’s blessing. The Machine has not formally endorsed a candidate in the current race. State Representative John Fritchey, an attorney who is a ward committeeman, barely missed winning a formal endorsement from the Cook County Central Committee.

Last weekend I was invited by the progressive Greater Chicago Caucus (GCC) to moderate two forums for 5th district candidates.  Neither the “usual suspects” nor the “legacy” candidates attended my forums (though County Commissioner Mike Quigley did attend a third GCC forum). The candidates I met were impressive. However, they are little known to the voters, a serious handicap in such a short campaign.

With one exception: Tom Geoghegan (pronounced gay-gan), a labor lawyer who is the author of several significant books and a frequent contributor to national publications and websites. He is well known in local and national labor circles. 

(Geoghegan’s website includes a video of all the candidates meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board. 

In early January, James Fallows, National Correspondent for the Atlantic magazine, wrote:

Two years ago, I said I was making an exception to the “no active involvement in politics” stance I had maintained through my previous decades of journalistic life. (After leaving a one-time stint in politics in the Jimmy Carter years.) That exception was to support my friend Jim Webb’s then-improbable run for the U.S. Senate from Virginia.

Here is exception number two: Tom Geoghegan for Congress. He will be running in the special election for the seat Rahm Emanuel is vacating to become White House chief of staff.

Fallows notes that “to the extent Tom is known publicly, it’s mainly because of  books he has written, like Which Side Are You On?, The Secret Lives of Citizens, and In America’s Courts.

Fallows’ enthusiasm for his long time friend, however, is not based entirely on his books:

Day by day for several decades he has been a lawyer in a small Chicago law firm representing steel workers, truckers, nurses, and other employees whose travails are the reality covered by abstractions like “the polarization of America” and “the disappearing middle class.”

Geoghegan’s skills as a writer and an intellectual are assets but in themselves might not recommend him for a Congressional job. His consistent and canny record of organizing, representing, and defending people who are the natural Democratic (and American) base is the relevant point.

Intrigued by Geoghegan, after hearing him twice in the forums I moderated, and a third time in a larger forum that included most of the 14 candidates running, I looked further into Geoghegan’s writing and legal career.

His most recent book is now out in paperback, See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation. He treats a theme which suggests he could be a voice for the voiceless in a country struggling to see daylight after eight years of conservative darkness.

Chicago blogger Rick Perlstein describes Geoghegan’s career in a Facebook cntry:

. . . As a lawyer [Geoghegan] has successfully brought class actions to recover lost pension benefits and health insurance arising from plant closings. He has also recovered shut down benefits under the federal WARN Act in several major cases. Both in federal court and in arbitrations, he has represented many different local unions, including nurses, truck drivers, steelworkers and railroad workers.

David Sirota, of The Huffington Post, is enthusiastic about Geoghegan;

One of the greatest living progressives in America . . . The reason his writing is so good is because he’s so simultaneously brilliant, progressive and politically savvy – all skills that would make him a congressional powerhouse.

After several interviews with the candidates, and four public forums, Geoghegan received the endorsement of the Greater Chicago Caucus, which cited “Geoghegan’s leadership on economic and social justice issues as the primary reason behind the endorsement.”

GCC has worked in several previous congressional campaigns. The organization has a strong base of volunteers and financial supporters among progressive communities in Chicago. 

The GCC web site describes the Caucus as ” a membership organization consisting of diverse communities with a shared commitment to peace and social justice.”  In addition to the GCC endorsement, Geoghegan has been endorsed by Teamsters Local 743, Progressive Democrats of America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), and Students for a New American Politics PAC. 

Don Rose gives his rationale for supporting Geoghegan after going through the scorecard of candidates better known to voters:

State Rep. Fritchey, who also is 32nd Ward committeeman, is one of three leading candidates, along with state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz. A sliver of her district is in the 5th. She is permitted to vote a liberal/feminist line in accord with her constituency, but otherwise requires surgical removal from House Speaker Mike Madigan. . . . 

The third leading candidate is County Commissioner Mike Quigley, known as a genuine reformer on the [Cook] County Board. His campaign seems to be based on being more against Board President Todd Stroger than anyone on the planet — or at least any of the 14 candidates running.

Rose feels Quigley could be a good choice, except for the fact that as a reformer he prefers to have Quigley, a fellow reformer, remain on the County board.

Rose concludes:

As a resident, my vote goes to labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan, author of several important books. His law partner is former Ald. Leon M. Despres, a father of progressive reform in Chicago, which speaks volumes in itself.

My reading of the race is that Rep. Sara Feigenholtz is the favorite. She is well ahead in the  money race, while Fritchey, her colleague in the legislature, is running a close second, not in money but in Machine backing.

One problem Feigenholtz might encounter is that in addition to the fact that her state district is in only a small part of the 5th congressional district, she could lose votes to the other female candidate, a very promising newcomer to politics, Jan Donetelli, who is on leave from her job as a Delta Airline pilot, a position she took after a career as a Navy pilot. 

Don Rose, adopting the customary suspicion of a Chicago reformer, suggests Donetelli may be a “plant” to dilute the female vote away from Feigenholtz. Planted by whom?  Some election watchers suspect Rahm Emanuel may one day grow weary of White House pressures and decide to take back his old seat. Does he have a “seat holder” among the 14 candidates who would benefit from Rahm’s fund-raising prowess and White House connections?  

Could that “seat holder” be Donetelli? Emanuel has a fondness for recruiting military veterans like Donetelli to run for Democratic seats. But Rahm’s choice would have to be reliable on Israel, which would suggest he would prefer Feigenholtz, whose website language on Israel follows the Emanuel line.

But would Feigenholtz give up a safe state house seat if she believes she would have to give her new congressional seat back to Rahm? Not likely; Feigenholtz is relatively young and ambitious.  She is not ready to retire.

Donetelli also does not appear to be either a plant or a place-holder. Her views on the Middle East do not reach the rhetorical intensity that Rahm admires. Nor, for that matter, is it even certain that Rahm wants to come back. His power in the White House, based on his first month in the Obama era, presumably will only grow stronger.  Hard to keep ’em down in the district, after they’ve seen DC. . .  from the top. 

I see the race as Feigenholtz’ to lose. But I also have a strong hunch that on a ballot with 14 Democratic candidates, progressive labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan might emerge as the upset winner.

To pull that off, progressive voters and progressive supporters from around the country will have to play a major role. Geoghegan already has received strong support from national progressive columnists in publications like the Wall Street Journal, the Nation and the New Yorker.  But he needs more than praise from the progressive left.  He needs an aggressive progressive movement which the intellectual left has thus far failed to generate.

 John B. Judis points to the absence of a progressive movement as one reason President Obama’s stimulus package was weakened by the Republican minority in Congress. 

. . . there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are left wing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. . .

Howard Beale had the right idea. In the 1976 movie Network, Beale (Peter Finch) told his television audience to get out of their chairs, go to the window, open it, and shout: “I’m as mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!”  There are fourteen names on the Illinois Fifth district March 3 ballot.  Only one of them is a bona fide progressive. His name is Tom Geoghegan, another tall, thin Illinois attorney with a law degree from Harvard. Pass it on.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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3 Responses to Tom Geoghegan Is A Progressive Running to Replace Rahm Emanuel In Illinois’ Fifth; He Could Win

  1. sisterrose says:

    Ah! Movies that matter … bring the story home. Thanks, Jim.

  2. Pingback: Tom in the blogs: latest round-up

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