Who Will Replace Obama in the Senate?

When asked last week what skills he would value in his Senate replacement, President-elect Barack Obama gave an answer that was not at all surprising. "I think that the criteria I would have for my successor would be the same criteria I would have if I were a voter," he said. "Somebody who is capable [and] somebody who is passionate about helping working families in Illinois meet their dreams."

Unfortunately, voters won't choose who succeeds Obama in the Senate. That decision lies solely with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat as dense and unpredictable as the president-elect is self-aware and cautious. Sure, Obama will have some input into his successor's appointment. So will liberal interest groups and Democratic donors throughout the state, all of whom want to ensure the seat stays in the blue column two years from now. But Blagojevich, whose approval rating hovers around 13 percent and faces a federal corruption investigation that is inching closer and closer to his Springfield office, will make the final call. Desperately seeking to repair his legacy or position himself for an improbable third-term run in 2010, it's certain that the embattled Democrat will use the opportunity -- in true Illinois fashion -- to secure some political advantage. Whether his choice will suit progressives is another matter. Here is a rundown of the top contenders.

First Tier

Emil Jones
A promotion for Jones, a 73-year-old from the South Side of Chicago who retired this spring from his post as state Senate president, the U.S. Senate seat would be a satisfying coda to his long career in state government. Unfortunately, that career was too often defined by loud talk and little action. The consummate machine pol, Jones accumulated lots of clout during his 25 years in Springfield but rarely used it on issues important to his constituents, education-funding reform among them. He also ensured his neophyte son succeeded him in the state Senate, a move many regarded as blatantly nepotistic.

If Jones is appointed, it'll be because of the relationships he's nurtured. Nicknamed Obama's "Political Godfather," Jones tapped the up-and-coming state senator to lead high-profile legislative initiatives like ethics and welfare reform as a way to boost his resumé. He was also Blagojevich's most loyal ally in the toxic intraparty squabbles that have characterized the governor's tenure, meaning he could be in line for some payback. And if Blagojevich doesn't want to anger African-Americans, the only group that still gives him significant support, appointing an African American to the seat might be wise. If Jones is selected, it's probable he wouldn't seek re-election, leaving an open race in 2010.

Lisa Madigan
Besides Obama himself, Lisa Madigan may be the most popular politician in the Land of Lincoln. The 42-year-old attorney general has built a national reputation on safeguarding consumers from fraud and unsafe products as well as on protecting families facing mortgage foreclosure. As a Democrat who could defeat Blagojevich in a statewide primary, she's considered a prime contender for the governorship in 2010. If Madigan wants the seat, this move is a no-brainer for Blago. Not only would it partially clear his re-election path, he could use the appointment as a bargaining chip in his ongoing negotiations with chief rival Michael Madigan, Lisa's father and the veteran speaker of the Illinois House. If Lisa gets the call, Mike might drop his opposition to an expansion of health care and an infrastructure-improvement plan -- two initiatives Blagojevich needs to advance to secure any semblance of a legacy. On the other hand, the Blagojevich-Madigan feud runs extraordinarily deep, and the guv might be reluctant to throw the family any favors, regardless of the stakes. Replacing the Senate's lone black member with a white woman may also frustrate Chicagoland's black population, arguably Blagojevich's only remaining power base.

Jesse Jackson Jr.
On the merits, Rep. Jackson Jr. might be the most qualified candidate. A strong progressive reformer representing Illinois' 2nd District, Jackson has fought tirelessly for constituents in his district -- one of the nation's poorest -- using his post on the House Appropriations Committee to fund infrastructure, housing and health-care programs. He's also extremely popular on Capitol Hill, known for his political decorum, work ethic, and oratorical flair. Having served as a national co-chair for the Obama campaign, he and his wife Sandi -- a rising star on the Chicago City Council who could easy slide into his congressional seat -- enjoy a close relationship with the president-elect. And he wants the seat with a burning, almost obsessive, desire. (Case in point: He just commissioned and released a Zogby poll that attempts to prove his statewide appeal.)

That said, Blagojevich holds him in low regard. Jackson is an outspoken critic of corruption and has feuded openly with Blagojevich, Jones, and Mayor Richard M. Daley in the past. This summer, he even had a spat with newly elected U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat from the 11th District, Jones' top lieutenant, and an opponent of Jackson's pet project, a third regional airport located in Chicago's South Suburbs. But Jackson does present a threat to Blagojevich. If he were to turn his attention toward the state House in 2010, the South Sider could peel off significant black support in the Democratic primary (along with votes from the white and Latino reform crowd), thereby decimating Blagojevich's already slim re-election chances. Even if Jackson declines to run for governor, he could still hurt Blagojevich among black voters by loudly complaining about being passed over -- particularly if the replacement is not African American. That threat might just prompt Blagojevich to send him east.

Second Tier

Jan Schakowsky
In many ways, Rep. Schakowsky of Illinois' 9th District is a hybrid of Madigan and Jackson. A veteran feminist leader, she's long agitated for consumer rights, issuing bills to protect Americans from identity theft and predatory lending. And like Jackson, she's an unabashed progressive with strong ties to Obama, having endorsed him for the Illinois Senate primary in the winter of 2003 and stood in as a national surrogate during his presidential campaign.

Unfortunately, Schakowsky brings to the table only the legislative assets of the two front-runners, not the political benefits. While her relationship with the governor isn't outwardly hostile, a rarity in Illinois politics, they aren't particularly close, either. Chicago's North Side liberals are unlikely to back the governor in 2010, no matter whom Blagojevich chooses, and her focus on national politics means she's no gubernatorial threat herself. If the Senate seat is open in 2010, look for her to make a run.

Tammy Duckworth
Duckworth has the type of biography that gets political consultants drooling. An Asian-American woman born in Thailand (her father worked for the U.N.) and raised in Hawaii, she lost both of her legs in a helicopter accident while serving in Iraq four years ago. In 2006, she narrowly lost a race for the House seat of retiring arch-conservative Henry Hyde, despite loads of financial support from the national party. Days after her defeat, Blagojevich appointed her director of the Illinois Veterans' Affairs Department, a favor she recognized this summer during her speech at the Democratic National Convention (the only Democrat to utter Blagojevich's name throughout the entire proceedings).

The governor would love to see her in the limelight, but it's unclear whether she could hold the seat in a statewide election; the GOP could easily paint her as a Blagojevich lackey, as politically potent a slur in Illinois as connections to President Bush are for Republicans nationally. If he wants to promote one of his own, Jones seems like the more natural, less risky fit.

Valerie Jarrett
Jarrett, the "other half of Obama's brain," is a long-time friend and close adviser to the president- and first lady-elect. Born in Iran to a world-renown African American doctor, her family pedigree is unparalleled: Her great-grandfather was the first African American graduate of M.I.T. and her grandfather Robert Taylor was the first black man to head the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Jarrett hasn't done too bad for herself, either -- she graduated from Stanford and Michigan Law, worked in the Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley administrations, is currently the CEO of Habitat Company, a real estate development and management company, and has served on the board of countless business and nonprofit organizations in Chicago. There are two major knocks against Jarrett. The first is that her housing firm nabbed a bevy of affordable housing contracts from City Hall as part of a massive CHA overhaul and many of those developments have since fallen into disrepair. Of the contenders, she's the least politically experienced, too, having never held or run for elected office. If Obama really wants her on Capitol Hill, he might be able to persuade Blagojevich to consider. Jarrett would also keep the seat in the hands of an African American, a boon for Blagojevich. But after early speculation to the contrary, sources now indicate Obama "wants her in the White House," meaning Blagojevich may have already signaled she's not an option. Of course, all of these prognostications come with a major caveat: Blagojevich has proven repeatedly throughout his six years in office that he can be an irrational actor. How he decides to fill in the vacancy is a mystery to everybody but himself.

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