January 16, 2009

Naked Economist Wheelan runs for Congress

After filing paperwork Monday, Harris School lecturer Charlie Wheelan is officially a candidate for Congress.

Wheelan, the Naked Economics author, has thrown his hat into a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls looking for their party’s nomination in the Illinois Fifth District special election to replace Rahm Emmanuel. Emmanuel resigned his seat earlier this month to become Barack Obama’s chief of staff.

After the Democratic Party of Cook County failed to endorse a candidate at their meeting last weekend, the contest is anyone’s game. Three other Democratic candidates, including state representatives John Fritchey and Sara Feigenholtz, also submitted papers on Monday, the first day to do so. At least six others have expressed interest in the seat, but have yet to formally file.

A traditionally blue district that includes Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and some Northern suburbs, the Fifth District has been controlled by Democrats since 1997. Only one Republican has won the seat in the past century, and barring a major scandal or other similar revelation, the Democratic nominee is expected to win the general election on April 7th.

Political science professor and American politics expert Mark Hansen, although unfamiliar with Wheelan’s campaign, predicts that get-out-the-vote efforts will be key to any candidate’s success.

“Special election turnout is always very low,” Hansen said. “Primary turnout is usually very low. Therefore special election primary turnout is likely to be very, very low. The advantage lies with the candidate with the infrastructure, which in the Fifth would be the unions and the Democratic ward organizations, which are still substantial in that part of town.”

To this end, Wheelan’s campaign has just hired a field director to supervise turnout operations. Wheelan describes his target voters as “the NPR crowd,” betting that educated, politically engaged voters with economic concerns are the niche group that can put him out front.

“There’s no run off, and it’s a very big field, so you just don’t need that high of a percentage or as a result, not that many votes to win the thing,” Wheelan said.

Wheelan, a political newcomer, may lack the helpful political connections of experienced legislators like Feigenholtz, but he relishes the outsider role.

“In the press, by and large, we’ve been positioned where we want to be,” Wheelan said. “We want to be mentioned at the top, but we want to be mentioned in a different way than the people coming at it with a traditional political background.”

Economic expertise has become Wheelan’s central campaign theme. His campaign logo resembles a rising stock market chart, and he has given a press conference against a backdrop detailing recent job losses.

“I’ve carved a career about being the guy who can translate economics into what most people understand, and meanwhile the most important issue that’s going on is the financial crisis,” said Wheelan. “If that were not the case, I wouldn’t be running.”

While he claims it’s too early to tell if stressing economic know-how will be a successful strategy, Wheelan noted that he was one of only four candidates to raise over $100,000 before the December 31 Federal Election Commission reporting deadline. Feigenholtz led the pack in initial fundraising, raking in almost $300,000.

On campus, a student support group for Wheelan has yet to spring up, but the UCDems expressed a strong interest in the lecturer’s campaign.

“We have talked about his candidacy at our meetings, and we are excited about the idea of a Chicago professor running for the open seat,” said UCDems President and fourth-year Leigh Hartman. He added that his group will be organizing canvassing trips for Wheelan and that he hopes to set up an event with the candidate.