Mike Quigley isn't quite Rahm Emanuel, but he's not Rod Blagojevich, either.

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March 4 2009 3:58 PM

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Mike Quigley isn't quite Rahm Emanuel, but he's not Rod Blagojevich, either.

Mike Quigley. Click image to expand.
Mike Quigley

CHICAGO—The first time I met Mike Quigley, who won Tuesday's Democratic primary to replace Rahm Emanuel in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was feuding with his local sheriff.

Quigley was one of 17 members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, representing a liberal lakefront district full of gays and young professionals. The sheriff was an old Irish machine pol from an ethnic ward. Quigley was peeved at the sheriff for tolerating deputies who strip-searched female prisoners, an abuse that cost the county $6.8 million in lawsuits.

"Sheriff's mad at me because I'm telling the world he's a sexist, racist, homophobic bad guy," Quigley barked. "He's created an atmosphere of excessive force, that might makes right."

Quigley is a short, pugnacious guy with a blocky mug who likes to brag that he's taken 300 stitches from playing ice hockey. (At 50, he still plays in a pickup league.) In a decade on the county board—not to be confused with the 50-member City Council, home to that world-famous character, the "Chicago alderman"—he's built an image as a pesky reformer who rages against the Chicago machine.

That's not entirely true. Quigley got his start as the protégé of a city alderman who helped lead the white resistance against Mayor Harold Washington. But, smarting with shame from the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the appointment of Sen. Roland Burris, Chicago voters were looking for a Chicago politician who didn't remind them too much of a Chicago politician. Quigley fits the bill.

"After all the recent embarrassments, this was the first chance that the voters had to voice their desire for change and they spoke loud and clear," Quigley told the Chicago Tribune. "They came through for me, and now I have to come through for them."

In a 12-candidate field, Quigley won with 22 percent of the vote. His most serious rivals were a pair of state legislators who had more money and more endorsements from labor and ward bosses. But sitting on the county board was a huge advantage for Quigley because it gave him a chance to pick a fight with the most hated man in Chicago politics: Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

Stroger is the son of the last board president, John Stroger, so he represents the nepotism that Chicagoans claim to be weary of but always end up voting for. And last year, Stroger pushed through a one-cent increase that raised Chicago's sales tax to 10.25 percent, the highest of any big city in the nation. Quigley voted against it.

When Stroger first took office in 2007, Quigley tried to support him, even voting for his first budget. But getting along with the powerful is not Quigley's style. After exactly a month, the alliance disintegrated in a public shouting match over a plan to transfer $13 million from the Forest Preserve District to the county's general fund. "From here we part," Quigley declared melodramatically.

Stroger accused Quigley of trying to "stab me in the back," which is an endorsement in most parts of Chicago. Quigley's campaign ad didn't target his opponents. It asked, "Who's been taking on Todd Stroger?"

An anti-authoritarian reformer may seem like a strange choice for the 5th District, which has had a lineage of slick operators: Its last three Democratic representatives were Dan Rostenkowski, Blagojevich, and Emanuel. But the northwest side of Chicago has changed since the days of Rosty and Blago. It's been colonized by young professionals who crowd into lakefront apartments during their post-collegiate party years then migrate up the district's main El line in search of quieter neighborhoods and more spacious condos. They are independent voters who don't need the favors a ward office dispenses. Quigley is one of them: He grew up in the suburbs, moved to the city as a young man, and, as a politician, became a staunch supporter of gays, women, and the environment.

Each of Quigley's main opponents tried to reanimate an element of the old 5th District coalition. State Rep. John Fritchey had the most ward organizations (including one run by his wife's uncle). State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz was backed by the Service Employees International Union. Dr. Victor Forys created huge excitement among the Polish population, which has never completely forgiven the lakefront liberals for voting out Rostenkowski. But even though the Polish-language hotline rang off the hook at the Board of Elections, Forys got only 12 percent, evidence of his community's dwindling influence.

(Labor lawyer and author Tom Geoghegan had a passionate fan club of liberal journalists, including Joe Conason of Salon, Thomas Frank of the Wall Street Journal, and Slate's own Mickey Kaus. None of them live in the 5th District, which may explain why Geoghegan pulled an anemic 6 percent. Chicagoans will vote for a reformer, but they won't vote for a goo-goo.)

On April 7, Quigley will flick away his Republican opponent, anti-immigrant activist Rosanna Pulido. After that, he can stay in Congress as long as he wants. The 5th is as Democratic as any white-majority district in the nation, and a primary challenge is unlikely. Quigley had no serious policy differences with his rivals, who were mostly staunch advocates of expanding access to health care and of President Obama's stimulus package.

But once he gets to Washington, Quigley is going to be the most junior member of the House. He's going to have to keep his voice down. For at least a month.

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