As Potential Chicago Mayoral Candidates Surge, Sheriff Tom Dart Rises to the Top

09/10/2010 02:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Names of potential Chicago mayoral candidates to succeed Mayor Richard M. Daley are gushing out with the same intensity that BP's crippled oil well spewed crude a couple months ago.

Among the names surging forward--some of which are just as slippery as the spilt oil--Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart's is quickly surfacing to the top rank of contenders.

Those contenders will likely be vast and many undoubtedly formidable and all will be testing and tormenting the limits of Dart's own impressive talents if the Sheriff runs.

The presumed candidacy of Rahm Emanuel, 50, the White House chief of staff and Daley darling, would crackle like Fourth of July fireworks at Navy Pier. Emanuel launched post-Daley speculation in an April television interview when he stated: "One day I would like to run for mayor of the city of Chicago."

Well, that day has come.

President Barack Obama lit the first sparkler of a "Rahm for Mayor" campaign by exclaiming the other day that Emanuel would make "an excellent mayor." Obama's "endorsement" - coming before the expected electoral debacle in November--likely is a thinly-veiled pink slip. Scram.

Another potential candidacy that could unleash fireworks is that of U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. Jackson, 45, who has long-sought the development of a regional airport in Peotone as an economic driver for the southern suburbs, risks an electoral explosion as ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich's retrial begins in January. Jackson's name was sullied in the alleged deal to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat and is likely to be called to testify in the new trial. Not good.

Retiring Cook County Assessor James Houlihan, 67, has made noises and waves before Daley's announcement regarding a potential mayoral candidacy. Houlihan, a former state lawmaker from Chicago's north side and active political enemy of Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Cook County Democratic Party Chaiman Joe Berrios, has alienated many of regular Democrats that he would need for a successful bid.

But Houlihan's populist push for property tax reform during his tenure would be fetching for tax-weary Chicago voters.

For sheer pluck and brains 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, 38, must be on any mayoral candidate list. Reilly, a former legislative and campaign aide to Speaker Madigan, launched an audacious and successful underdog campaign against former 42nd Ward Alderman Burt Natarus in 2007. Reilly ran circles around the befuddled Natarus.

The first-term alderman also publicly challenged Daley--an act of political courage as rare a dodo bird--by opposing the Chicago Children's Museum location in Grant Park. Courage and campaign smarts makes Reilly a guy to watch.

U.S. Representative Mike Quigley, 51, who won a special election in 2009 to fill the congressional seat of Emanuel, earned a reformer reputation during his years on the Cook County Board battling Board Presidents John Stroger and later his son, Todd, over mismanagement, patronage abuse, and overspending. Sound familiar?

If Quigley runs, the script is already written.

Another potential candidate hailing from Quigley country is 44th Ward Alderman Tom Tunney, 55, who gained his post through a Daley appointment in 2002. Tunney, the first openly gay alderman in Chicago history, is also the owner the legendary Ann Sather restaurants.

Besides the sticky cinnamon buns churned out by the crate in the restaurants' ovens, Tunney is also widely known for wielding--literally--an ever present broom on Belmont avenue to tidy the neighborhood. As a candidate, Tunney would exert an enormous, unaffected man-on-street appeal, an appeal that long helped Daley hold the reins of the city.

Then there's Dart.

A former Cook County prosecutor and a 10-year state representative, Dart, 42, after a failed state treasurer race in 2002, served as chief of staff to then-Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan, claiming the sheriff's post in the 2006 election when Sheehan retired.

As a state lawmaker and now as sheriff, Dart is like that BP oil well--gushing so many progressive ideas that a supertanker is needed to store the excess. In the legislature, Dart spearheaded the effort to reform the then un-reformable Illinois Department of Children Family Services. At the time, the child welfare bureaucracy itself gushed so many abused and neglected children that the overflow of kids were warehoused in state offices, sleeping on cots between desks.

Dart worked day-and-night to produce a welter of legislation to fix the broken agency. Long after most legislators had left their offices to schmooze in local taverns, Dart would be in his drafting new bill ideas by the dozens to bring order to the state's child welfare chaos and broken families.

Eventually, Illinois' child welfare went from being from a national disgrace to a national model, thanks, in large part, to Dart's legislative prodding.

As sheriff, his headline-grabbing suspension of foreclosure evictions was, for example, vintage Dart. Like his focus on the well-being of children and families that embodied his earlier legislation, Dart halted the evictions due to the same long-held priorities--the well-being of children and families.

Dart is not the type of politician out grubbing for an office and its title. No. He's out grubbing relentlessly for the interests of ordinary citizens of taxpayers. He's a rarity. And it shows. A new Chicago Sun-Timespoll has Dart leading a field of nine potential candidates.

Additionally, in a city presently beset with relentless gun violence and countless citizens cowering in their homes, having the title "Sheriff" bolted to your name is huge built-in advantage.

Undoubtedly, a multitude a talented mayoral candidates beyond those listed here will surface. Dart, however, if he chooses to run, will be at this point the man to beat.