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Chicago Sun Times

GLBT applause-o-meter rings, and pols listen
Laura Washington

The applause-o-meter wildly careened as the tuxedoed politicians strutted across the stage Saturday night at the annual Equality Illinois gala. Dawn Clark-Netsch, the grand dame of progressives, floated by in a billowy green and red gown, reprising Christmas. The meter went through the roof. 

The main attraction was the parade of politicians, who each stepped briefly into the spotlight and wooed the 1,100 or so supporters of the gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender rights group. It’s a must do for any politician who cares about Chicago’s GLBT vote. 

The state’s top pols were there though the next big election isn’t until 2010. Dozens, including a U.S. Senator, a governor and an eager passel of congressional wannabes all jostled for the limelight. 

According to my highly scientific reading, three ladies registered the highest decibels on the applause-o-meter: Netsch, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, and state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz. 

Feigenholtz, who is running in the 5th Congressional District to replace Rahm Emanuel, was on of at least six candidates who showed up to kiss the GLBT ring. Most of the city’s GLBT voters live in the district, making them a coveted constituency in the competitive March 3 Democratic primary. 

They worked the cocktail hour with political storm and drang. Feigenholtz sported a well-known cadre of supporters, including endorsements from Equality Illinois Political Director Rick Garcias and Art Johnston, a popular co-founder of the gay rights group. Feigenholtz is going head-to-head for the GLBT vote with Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley. 

One key endorsement is off the table. Ald. Tom “Sticky Buns” Tunney (44th) is taking a pass. Chicago’s first and only openly gay alderman and Ann Sather’s proprietor is a longtime friend and ally of both, so he is not endorsing, though he will do fundraising for both. 

North Side and openly gay state Rep. Greg Harris is backing a strange bedfellow: 40th Ward Ald. Patrick O’Connor, Mayor Daley’s unofficial City Council floor leader and longtime Northwest Side pol. O’Connor launched his Council career in the 1980s as a member of the infamous “Vrdolyak 29,” the white ethnic bloc that stymied the city’s first black mayor at every turn. 

Harris argues that O’Connor should be rewarded for deploying his clout with other white ethnic alderman to help pass the city’s human rights ordinance in 1988. “He made a lot of this possible,” Harris told me at the dinner table Saturday night. “It is important to remember who was with us then.” (It probably doesn’t hurt that O’Connor helped put Harris in his House seat.) 

The biggest surprise of the party was the brevity of U.S. Sen. Roland Burris. He sprang to the podium to give greetings, declaring “we are going to pass” a long-pending federal hate-crime bill that would prohibit violence against gays. 

Burris clocked in under 60 seconds. The crowd roared. Remarkable. 

Burris did not refer to himself in the third person. Not once. Even more remarkable. 

Late Breaking Newsflash: On Tuesday the Service Employees International Union and UNITE will endorse Sara Feigenholtz for the 5th CD. Her advocacy on health care and “political viability” makes her “the clear choice for us,” according to Jerry Morrison, executive director of the SEIU Illinois State Council. 

The SEIU will deploy its 9,000 members in the district to knock on doors, make phone calls and get out the vote. The union’s clout could make the difference for Feigenholtz, especially on the west side of the district. Its membership is “by and large” Polish-American cleaning ladies and Latino janitors, he said. That could be a decisive boost for the lakefront liberal.