CHICAGO — The special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by new White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has generated widespread interest here. Nowhere was that more evident when over 550 people jammed into a Super Bowl Sunday candidate forum at DePaul University, Feb. 1. Another 100 people, prevented from entering by fire marshals, listened to a live broadcast by the local Air America affiliate.

The primary election for the 5th Congressional District on Chicago’s North Side will be March 3. A special general election is slated for April 7.

Intense grassroots interest could negate the effect of a still powerful Chicago “machine” in the district.

There are 24 candidates out of three parties running in the primary. A voter will have the choice of asking for a Democratic, Green or Republican ballot. There are 13 Democrats, five Greens and six Republicans running in the primary. It is widely expected that whoever wins the Democratic primary will win the April 7 general election. Many commentators have said that regardless of which of the leading Democrats wins the primary, the district will have a progressive voice in Congress.

The DePaul University forum featured 11 of the 13 Democratic candidates and focused on solutions to the economic crisis, single-payer health care, support for gay rights and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. All the candidates expressed strong support for the Obama stimulus plan, although some felt it didn’t go far enough; all support the Employee Free Choice Act; all support some form of universal health care, although not all support a single-payer model; and most support legalizing same-sex marriage and equal rights for the GLBT community. Their approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis differ somewhat.

All the candidates expressed their opposition to the privatization of Midway Airport being carried out by the administration of Mayor Richard Daley, and vowed to block it if they were elected.

Many here say the most progressive Democratic candidate is Tom Geoghegan, an author and labor lawyer who recently won a class action suit against Advocate Hospitals and who has defended, among others, the Wisconsin Steel workers in their victorious battle to win stolen pay and benefits in the 1980s. Geoghegan told the forum he is running as an independent Democrat to advance a progressive agenda, including increasing Social Security payments to make the program a real pension. He expressed strong support for single-payer health care and for federal takeover of insolvent Wall Street banks.

Geoghegan, a founding member of Chicagoans Against War and Injustice, has been endorsed by The Nation magazine, which called him the “next Paul Wellstone.”

Also running is State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who has a big advantage in fundraising and sports a well-organized field operation. Feigenholtz has the backing of Feminist Majority, National Organization for Women and Emily’s List. She’s expected to gain the support of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Illinois Council, which would be a huge boost as SEIU has many members in the district.

Feigenholtz has gained a reputation as a champion of health care reform particularly for women and children, sponsoring the Family Health Care Bill with then-State Sen. Barack Obama, which extended health care coverage to 200,000 working people.

The Illinois Environmental Council and Sierra Club both awarded Feigenholtz a 100 percent rating.

Another candidate is State Rep. John Fritchey, whom some consider to be the candidate favored by “machine” elements. Fritchey is the son of a Moroccan immigrant mother who married his father at a Louisiana Air Force base.

At the forum, Fritchey hailed the $500 million that is expected for the Chicago Public Schools from the Obama stimulus. Fritchey has the support of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, AFSCME, Operating Engineers Local 150 and Teamsters Joint Council 25.

Fritchey “has been a good supporter for us,’ remarked AFSCME Council 31 President Henry Bayer recently.

Based on name recognition, some consider Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley to be the leading candidate. Quigley earned a reputation as a reformer in his battles against corruption in Cook County government. He told the forum the Obama stimulus plan would particularly help the perpetually cash-strapped Chicago Transit Authority with some of its infrastructure projects.

Quigley initiated a move to suspend county business with Bank of America during the recent Republic worker sit-in unless the bank agreed to a settlement. He has been called the “greenest” elected official in Chicago for his strong environmental stands.

Perhaps the most intriguing Democratic candidate is Jan Donatelli, a Navy veteran, Delta Airline pilot, union activist and mother of six. Donatelli describes herself as an “activist at heart.” She became interested in running for public office while volunteering in the Obama campaign. She enjoys the support of Veterans and Military Families for Progress, Delta Master Exec Council, the Airline Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants.

“I think the electorate is progressive and politicians need to catch up to the people,” Donatelli told the forum. She denounced the Midway Airport privatization, saying people’s safety should come first over profits. She called for more funding for border security, but also for a path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

While all the candidates acknowledged Israel’s security needs and right to exist, and supported a two-state solution for the crisis, Donatelli was the only candidate to forthrightly express a desire for a “comprehensive peace” in the Middle East and a “free and independent Palestine” alongside Israel.

Many more public forums will be held across the district in the coming weeks. The race is being conducted in an extremely compacted time frame. It appears the candidate with the strongest ground operation will have the advantage.

jbachtell @