07/30/2010 02:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mayor Daley's Parking Meter Deal Gets Ensnarled in Illinois State Senate Race

It may be the dog days of summer, but one local state senate campaign is taking no holiday.

Democratic state senate candidate John Mulroe (D-Chicago) is already launching his first political attack of the general election against GOP opponent Alderman Brian Doherty (R-41) in a race that is shaping up to be the hottest state senate contest in Chicago.

And Mulroe's political cudgel of choice?

Parking meters.

Mulroe, an accountant who won a four-way primary in Feburary, is bludgeoning Doherty with the same parking meter privatization and rate increase fiasco that has been bedeviling Chicago Mayor Richard Daley since its infamous inception.

Mulroe this week launched a broadside against Doherty, criticizing the city council veteran for "his inability to deal with the city's financial problems" as the city of Chicago's budget faces a $700 million shortfall.

"His record does not inspire a lot of confidence," said Mulroe, who is seeking the senate seat recently vacated by State Senator James DeLeo on Chicago's north west side. "People in my community might be looking at layoffs because of these severe budget problems, and that's not right."

Specifically, Mulroe blistered Doherty's support of Mayor Daley's deeply unpopular meter lease deal which has sent parking fees rocketing upward like a space shuttle, but faster.

"Selling our parking meters was a bad move, but already raiding nearly 85% of the money from the reserve fund that was supposed to last for 75 years was even worse," said Mulroe.

The company that leased the meters, Chicago Parking Meters LLC, paid the city some serious swag up front -- $1.16 billion -- but the money is now nearly exhausted, including the $400 million "long-term reserve" designated to replace the city's lost meter revenue. Only $177.4 million from the deal remains. Pennies.

Doherty voted for the lease.

"As an accountant, I could not justify spending money that was supposed to be saved," Mulroe added. "This is one of the key problems with our elected officials right now: if the money is supposed to saved, then save it."

Of the $771.3 million of lease money
in the bank as of March 31, 2010, $543.9 million will be used to plug the city's 2010 budget deficit.

Asked to respond on the day of Mulroe's attack, Doherty responded, "If possible, I'll give you a response tomorrow." Tomorrow never came. Or the day after.

It's easy to understand why.

One of Doherty's city council colleagues illustrates the political problem of the 75-year lease.

"It's a horrible situation the mayor has created," Alderman Scott Waguespack (D-32) said this week. "The economy is extremely bad. People are suffering..."

And the unpopularity of the parking meter deal is reflected in a new Chicago Tribune poll which reported this month, "Four out of five voters surveyed disapprove of Daley's handling of the parking meter lease."

Mulroe is obviously attempting to tap that vein of voter discontent in Chicago.

"We have serious financial problems in Illinois and we need people that can be trusted to do the right thing with our hard-earned money," said Mulroe, alluding to the meter lease.

The key political question is: Will the parking meter issue serve as a potent line of attack?

Polls by both campaigns have Doherty up -- a nine-point lead in a July GOP survey and only a 2-point edge in a June Democratic poll, but if his lead wilts under Mulroe's meter assault and ultimately loses, then there will be a lot of nervous Chicago Alderman on November 3.

The Mulroe-Doherty contest is the only serious general election fight in the city and it could likely serve as a canary in the coal mine for the upcoming aldermanic and mayoral primary election on February 22, 2011. That's why this race is key.

However, to neutralize the parking meter issue, Doherty will need to push his traditional "fiscal conservative" message early, often and hard to voters. But at the moment he has little money to launch direct mail with only $18,991.45 in his campaign kitty as of June 30, 2010 -- compared to $32,016.64 for Mulroe.

And he has little time.

It may be the dog days of summer, but there are only 94 days until November 2 -- and the meter is running.