Twenty-two people have filed their papers to take over Jesse Jackson Jr.’s 2nd District congressional seat. Just think of it: 22 people, 17 of them Democrats, one of whom will win the party’s primary on February 26, and then almost certainly go on to win the special election on April 9 in this overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Who has the inside track? I’d say Robin Kelly, 56, of Matteson—which is in the 2nd District—who has just announced that Cheryl Whitaker will chair her campaign.
If Whitaker's name sounds familiar, it’s because she and her husband, Eric Whitaker, are extremely close friends of Michelle and Barack Obama. (Both are physicians, and he, until recently, was an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Michelle’s last employer.) And the Obamas are close, at least professionally, to Rahm Emanuel. When I interviewed Cheryl Whitaker in November 2008 she was director of preventive cardiology at Rush University Medical Center; last week she left her job at Merge Healthcare as chief medical officer, explaining that she wants to write a book and help a friend (that would be Kelly) win a seat a in Congress. Crain’s Shia Kapos reports that Whitaker and Kelly met while working on Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign.
The ties to the Obamas may yield, if not outright endorsements—unusual in a primary—then the kind of under-the-table help that the Daley brothers gave to Rahm in his campaign to win the mayor’s office. Whitaker was quoted in the announcement of her joining the Kelly campaign as saying, “There is no better candidate in the race to stand with President Obama, Mayor Emanuel and Chairman Preckwinkle” in ridding Chicago and “the Southland” of “dangerous weapons.” (Kelly’s last job was as a top aide to Preckwinkle.)
A staunch liberal, Kelly a is former state rep (2002-2007), chief of staff to former Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, and, until recently, chief administrative officer for Cook County under Preckwinkle. She came up short in 2010 in her last run for office, when she ran against Republican Dan Rutherford for state treasurer.
After announcing her candidacy on December 2, Kelly outraised her competitors in December, $200,209 from 514 individual donors.
I called her campaign manager, Jon Blair, to ask if endorsements from the likes of the Obamas or Rahm or Preckwinkle would be forthcoming and if she has discussed, with any of them, specifically the Mayor, getting an endorsement. Of course his boss would be delighted to have their support, Blair told me, but “If you’re asking if endorsements are imminent, I don’t have anything to offer right now.”
The Whitakers are one of two couples who are close to the Obamas in a let’s-vacation-in-Hawaii kind of way. The other is Marty Nesbitt, a parking lot magnate just appointed by the Mayor to a panel studying the privatization of Midway Airport, and his wife, Anita Blanchard, an obstetrician who delivered the Obama daughters. (Both Marty Nesbitt and Eric Whitaker have played basketball with candidate Obama and President Obama.)
When I interviewed her for a profile of Michelle Obama, Cheryl Whitaker told me that she met Michelle when she moved to Chicago in 1997; their husbands already knew each other, having met when they were both graduate students at Harvard. Cheryl remembered the early mornings when she would meet Michelle at a Hyde Park gym for their morning workouts. Whitaker, whose son was in the same University of Chicago Lab School class as Sasha Obama, told me that she traveled with Michelle as early as 2007 and during the primaries and the general election in 2008—to Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota, Georgia.
Robin Kelly has something else going for her: the good luck to win the lottery for the top spot on the Democratic primary ticket. That counts for a lot in an election in which so many candidates will split the vote.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune