The high point of many races for the Illinois house comes when the rival candidates blanket their districts [PDF] with competing mailings and hope somebody accidentally drops a few in the foyer or on the sidewalk before they’re junked. But this year’s campaign for the 26th District Democratic nomination is intense—and by intense I mean dominated by big-name endorsements, regular poll watching, and charges that Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle is sometimes not that nice.

The long, diverse district stretches along the lakefront from the Gold Coast to South Shore, and since 2006 it’s been represented by Elga Jeffries, who was picked by Democratic committeemen after rep Lovana “Lou” Jones died. But Jeffries is widely considered a goner after a quiet stint in the legislature, and four others have lined up to take her on. Paul Chadha, an attorney and adjunct law professor at Northwestern, and Philip Jackson, the former head of the Chicago Housing Authority, probably don’t have much of a chance, so the race will likely come down to businessman Kenny Johnson and Will Burns, a former top aide to Illinois senate president Emil Jones.

The two have basically divided up the south side with their endorsements. Johnson, who lost a bid for City Council last year, has the backing of his former opponent Bob Fioretti, now the Second Ward alderman; Pat Dowell, alderman of the Third Ward; and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. Burns, who vied unsuccessfully to replace Barack Obama in the state senate in 2005, has the support of the man who ended up with that seat, Kwame Raoul, as well as Preckwinkle and Emil Jones. Burns touts his public policy and political experience; when Johnson says Burns has “been inside the system for a long time,” it sounds dirty.

Johnson recently sent out an e-mail blast detailing what he means by the “old school politics” he associates with Burns and his supporters. Preckwinkle, the message charged, used “strong-arm and shakedown” tactics to try to block Johnson from opening a Fourth Ward campaign office. Johnson said he agreed to rent space from a developer, whom he wouldn’t identify except to say he often works with Preckwinkle. But the next day the developer called and told him the deal was off. “He said he couldn’t rent it to me because alderman Preckwinkle told him not to,” Johnson said. “She’s supporting someone else in the race, but I don’t know why she’d do that otherwise.”

Johnson doth protest too much; it wasn’t his first scrape with Burns in the form of Preckwinkle. A few days earlier he’d shown up at a holiday party Preckwinkle sponsored for ward residents. According to several sources, Preckwinkle was upset, but she told Johnson he could stay as long as he didn’t hand out literature. And while Burns and other candidates were allowed to address the crowd, Johnson wasn’t.

According to Johnson, there was no reason he shouldn’t have gone to the holiday party—as a former supporter of Preckwinkle’s, he was on her mailing list and received an invitation, not to mention the fact that it was a public event held in a public space. He shrugs off the suggestion that he was playing politics. “I mean, I’m a candidate for office. Everywhere I go it’s a political appearance.”

Neither Burns nor Preckwinkle would comment. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the alderman would urge a local businessman to stick to her political playbook. In the City Council Preckwinkle has a well-earned reputation as an independent—she’s one of the few who will stand up and criticize the mayor, his policies, and his machine politics. But as she readily acknowledges herself, she’s built a formidable political organization in her south-side ward, and critics have long said she demands absolute loyalty in return for her support or help.

To make matters more confounding, there’s also a theory floating around the south side that Johnson set up Preckwinkle to look like a bully and she fell for it. South-side developer and realtor Jerome Wade says he’s the one who met with Johnson and discussed renting space. Wade happens to be married to Audrey Wade, chief of staff for Pat Dowell, a Johnson supporter.

But Wade denies that Preckwinkle had anything to do with the deal falling through. He says the space he had available was simply much bigger than what Johnson wanted. “I didn’t have reason to talk to the alderman,” Wade says. “Matter of fact, that space is still available. I’d love [Johnson] to have it at any time. But I can’t cut the space down for him.”

Johnson, of course, is sticking to his story. “I know what happened,” he says. He adds that he recently opened an office at 1013 E. 43rd. That’s in the Fourth Ward.