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Mayoral Material?

Ten to watch, even as they demur

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So who is thinking of running for mayor? And who should be thinking about it? "There's no obvious candidate," says a prominent Chicago political operative, meaning no one who has it all: the track record, the money, the name recognition, the charisma, the connections, the energy, and the guts.

But there are people who have many of these things, and based on what I've learned—in conversations over the past few weeks with several dozen elected officials, Democratic insiders, analysts, and consultants, most of whom didn't want to be named for fear of political retribution by the mayor—if the decision had to be made today, Daley would have at least one challenger, and he might have several.

Of course the filing deadline for mayoral candidates isn't until December 13, and the political world can turn several times between now and then.

Here, in no particular order, are ten players I'd keep a close eye on for now. These are the names I heard most from the movers and shakers, and either they're considering a run or someone's trying to recruit them for one. In some cases, it's both.

David Hoffman

Political insiders have been mentioning former city inspector general David Hoffman as a mayoral prospect for a couple years. The buzz spiked this past June, when he issued a blistering report on the city's parking meter deal, and his strong second-place finish in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate last month proved "he can run and run well," as one operative put it. Local progressives have launched a Facebook group called "David Hoffman Needs to Run for Mayor!" and in a e-mailed thank-you note to his Senate supporters Hoffman left the door open for another campaign: "You should know that this defeat does not deter me from wanting to fight to improve the lives of those who don't hold the reins of power and too often are shortchanged as a result," he wrote.

Hoffman's got some of his own money, but he just spent $1 million of it in the primary. He's got a record of fighting for good government, but lots of aldermen and Democratic insiders write him off as a self-promoting pipsqueak. He's smart and credible, but not always stirring. He might have to be drafted, but if he got into the race, Hoffman could make it very, very interesting.

Miguel del Valle

Current city clerk Miguel del Valle was a favorite of progressives when he served in the state legislature (1987-2006), where he became known as an education advocate, but he shocked many of his biggest fans by letting Mayor Daley appoint him to the clerk's job after incumbent James Laski quit under pressure. While Laski pleaded guilty to accepting bribes and served 11 months in federal prison, del Valle won election to a full term with the aid of a $100,000 donation from the mayor.

He's mostly steered clear of politics since, focusing on bringing the clerk's office into the computer age and ensuring that more of the City Council's work is traceable online. If he chose to run, del Valle would start with a strong base in the Latino community, but he'd have to convince a few Daley haters that he hasn't left his soul in a desk in the clerk's office. That might not be too hard: some north-side liberal activists were talking del Valle up at a ward organization meeting last month. Del Valle wouldn't comment for this story, but people close to him say he wouldn't run unless Daley decided not to.

Tom Dart

Cook County sheriff Tom Dart is a product of the local machine, specifically the 19th Ward Democratic organization. He got his job in 2006 through what looked like an inside deal: when his predecessor and patron, Michael Sheahan, abruptly announced that he wasn't running for reelection, he arranged to have party regulars support Dart in his place.

But Dart has a new-school political style that appeals to progressives even as he keeps up his ties to Democratic insiders. Dart has made national headlines for refusing to evict families from foreclosed rental properties and for cracking down on dogfighting. Sheahan and his predecessors worked to keep life in the county jail off-limits to observers, but Dart has welcomed reporters and documentary filmmakers and vowed to improve conditions there.

"He knows how to promote himself and he's got lots of progressive allies," says one operative. "He's got all kinds of up, all kinds of potential." A spokesman says Dart is focused on "making a difference as sheriff," but other sources in the know tell me he's thinking over the mayor thing pretty carefully.

James Houlihan

Cook County assessor James Houlihan has at least one thing going for him: a record of clashing with the mayor. The budgets Daley and his appointees set for the city, the public schools, the Park District, and the CTA determine what Chicagoans pay in property taxes—yet Daley frequently blames high taxes on Houlihan, whose office computes what everyone's property is worth. In fact Houlihan has been an advocate for property tax reform and is one of the big reasons the state legislature passed a law giving home owners a break on rising assessments.

But Houlihan, who's been assessor since 1997, decided not to run for reelection this year. And though he didn't return my call, a source close to him says he's mulling a mayoral bid. If he runs, Houlihan will have to spend lots of time reminding people who he is and countering the half-truths that Daley's thrown out there about his role in the local tax system. But he's respected by lots of good-government types, he's won countywide office three times, and he's got an Irish name, which never hurts in Chicago.

James Meeks

It's never smart to count out state senator James Meeks. When he's not pressing for education funding reform in Springfield, Meeks is the pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, the largest congregation in the state with some 20,000 members. Thousands of them are trained and authorized to register voters, which means Meeks is poised at any time to turn his congregation into a political army.

Four years ago he appeared to be doing just that, leading hundreds of Salem members in a series of demonstrations outside and even inside City Hall to demand that Daley do more to boost the quality of the city's public schools. "If this problem isn't addressed by February, we may have to look for other alternatives," Meeks declared. But after Daley invited Meeks in for a private meeting in fall 2006, the senator stopped threatening an opposition campaign.

Meeks is a powerful speaker who's well known in the black community, but he can be a loose cannon—he's referred to Daley as a "slave master" and sometimes slips into a "white" accent when he's criticizing politicians or business leaders during sermons. But to his credit he's continued to pressure Daley and state officials to improve the public schools. On Chicago Tonight a few weeks ago he intensified the rhetoric, arguing that the Chicago Public Schools should be taken out of Daley's control because they're faring so poorly. And he reiterated the point when I got him on the phone the next day:

"I know Mayor Daley is powerful, and I know he gets angry when people oppose him. But at what point do we take on that mystique and say, 'Maybe this isn't his area of expertise? Maybe an education system should be run by an educator?'"

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