The first time I saw Brendan Houlihan (PDF) he was looking like a lamb lost among the wolves.

A rookie politician from the southwest suburbs, he was sitting in a downtown Cook County election board hearing room, fighting to stay on the ballot as a candidate for Cook County Board of Review, the three-person body that oversees property tax appeals. This was back in January 2006.

His opponent, Republican incumbent Maureen Murphy, had challenged the validity of his nomination petitions. Word had it that behind the scenes no less than Democratic Party chair and house speaker Michael Madigan was working for Murphy. Madigan’s spokesman denied it, but one thing was certain: no major Democratic leaders from the southwest side were helping Houlihan, despite his coming from a political family (his father was a state rep from the far-south suburbs). With the exception of support from maverick Wheeling Township Democratic committeeman Patrick Botterman, Houlihan was on his own.

Eventually Murphy managed to find enough flaws in Houlihan’s petitions to bounce him from the ballot. But Houlihan wasn’t done yet. Since there were no other Democrats on the ballot, state law permitted the Democratic committeemen from his district to pick a nominee for the office.

The southwest-side Democrats got behind Bloom Township committeeman Terry Matthews. But Botterman stitched together enough support from north- and northwest-suburban committeeman to push Houlihan over the top, and he went on to defeat Murphy in November’s general election.

On June 26 Houlihan held his first big fund-raiser since taking office. And guess who was the honorary host chairman? No, not Madigan — that would have been too much irony even for Chicago. It was no less than Cook County Board commissioner and 11th Ward Democratic committeeman John Daley, the mayor’s brother.

Houlihan didn’t return calls for comment. As Botterman explained, Daley, like the mayor, was pretty much neutral in Houlihan’s campaign. But Botterman says he’s not surprised that Daley signed on after Houlihan won. “You know how it goes,” he says. If they can’t beat you at the polls, they welcome you into the club.

“Everybody loves a winner,” Botterman says.