With so much attention focused on the ever-expanding lineup of candidates to replace Rahm Emanuel in the job he’s vacating in the Fifth Congressional District, it’s instructive to reflect on how the incumbent got the gig: Mayor Daley anointed him.

In fact, I don’t think Emanuel—who as you know is stepping down to serve as chief of staff for the ascending president, Barack Obama—would even have run, much less won, back in 2002 without Daley’s endorsement and the army of patronage goons that came with it. After being raised in Wilmette and graduating from New Trier, Emanuel went to college out east and to work in Washington for President Bill Clinton before returning to Chicago as an investment banker. Despite the big, bad reputation he now has as an arm-twisting leader in Congress, he was largely unknown to voters when he ran to replace Rod Blagojevich, who was assuming the position of governor.

Sometime in the next few months there will be a special election to replace Emanuel, but for the moment both he and Daley say they’re staying out of it. Though I suspect that won’t last, it means that for now just about every living, breathing political creature on the north and northwest sides thinks he or she has a chance.

Things would be so much easier if we just dispensed with the charade: we should do away with elections altogether and allow Daley to fill all political vacancies. But according to state law, we don’t have that option. The code says: “When any vacancy shall occur in the office of representative in Congress from this state more than 180 days before the next general election, the Governor shall issue a writ of election within 5 days after the occurrence of the vacancy... appointing a day within 115 days to hold a special election.”

In other words, five days after Emanuel steps down—and he hasn’t yet—Blagojevich will call for an election within 115 days, and sometime in the next six months, the winner takes all. By contrast, the governor is responsible for appointing someone to fill Obama’s old Senate seat—no balloting necessary.

The congressional election promises to be a wide-open fight. The winner needs no majority, only a plurality, so there won’t be a runoff between the top two candidates if no one gets 50 percent. No one will run with a party affiliation, so getting slated by the Democratic Party will be helpful but not critical. Given the enduring advantages of incumbency around here, the winner will probably have a safe seat for decades—unless, of course, the candidates divide the Democratic votes and allow a Republican to miraculously slip in, in which case he or she will be promptly bounced from office after a single term.

All in all, it’s a rare opportunity for the backbenchers to break out of Daley’s Chicago and onto the big stage, where they can take a tough stand every once in a while without being punished. At the very least, they’ll get a higher-paying job and a better pension.

Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley, state rep Sara Feigenholtz, and aldermen Tom Allen and Eugene Schulter have already announced their intentions to run. State rep John Fritchey and former Board of Review candidate Jay Paul Deratany have announced that they will probably announce. Aldermen Tom Tunney and Manny Flores, and John Borovicka, Emanuel’s former chief of staff, have announced that they are considering announcing. Alderman Pat O’Connor has announced that he will announce if he gets Daley’s endorsement—how’s that for courage? And incoming state rep Deb Mell announced that she was going to announce, but that was before she announced that she probably wasn’t going to announce after all, since, as others had pointed out, it’d look pretty greedy to launch a campaign for higher office without spending at least one day in the office she’d just won. I mean, even president-elect Obama—everybody’s new role model, if not political sponsor—spent two years in the U.S. Senate before officially announcing his presidential campaign.

“Everyone can do the basic math,” says Deratany. “If ten strong candidates run, you really only need about 15 percent of the vote to win. Everyone’s thinking, ‘How can I get 15 percent of the vote?'”

The fastest way is to capture one big chunk of the district’s voters. Mell can count on daddy, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, to bring out the troops, a strategy that worked well for her brother-in-law, Governor Blagojevich. Fritchey hopes he can count on big support from his wife’s uncle, powerful 36th Ward alderman William Banks, while Allen is looking to capitalize on the name recognition he built finishing second in the recent Cook County state’s attorney primary. Quigley’s banking on his countywide reputation as a reformer, which of course presumes voters actually want reform. Given that Daley won re-election last year with more than 70 percent of the vote, I’m not sure that’s the case.

Deratany admits he’s a long shot. But he points out that when he ran last winter for Board of Review against longtime incumbent Joe Berrios he got 60 percent of the votes cast in the Fifth District, so he’s hoping voters will remember his name. Hey, at the start of the race everyone has a chance.

From what the candidates have been telling me, they’ve all been burning up the phone lines, posturing, cajoling one another, and looking to make deals: you can’t beat me so don’t even try; if you drop out I’ll back you for something else—that sort of thing. Quigley’s letting everyone know he’s in the race to stay; he put his career on hold once before, when he dropped out of the 2006 race for Cook County Board president in deference to Forrest Claypool, and he’s determined not to make the same mistake twice. Feigenholtz is saying she’s going to be like Anita Alvarez, who won this year’s Democratic primary for state’s attorney at least partly because she was the only woman running against a bunch of men.

Alderman Flores has a sticky problem in that he doesn’t live in the district. In fact, back in 2007, the last time he was gearing up to run for Congress, it was in a different district—the Fourth. (He begrudgingly dropped out of the race after Congressman Luis Gutierrez reversed himself and announced he was running for re-election after all.) Then again, there isn’t a district residency requirement for Congress. In fact I don’t think Gutierrez has lived in the Fourth in years, though it’s hard to tell because he keeps moving.

“The one thing about this election is that it won’t last long,” says Deratany. “Without the runoff it will be over fast.”

Well, not necessarily. Things could get really interesting if Blagojevich picks Gutierrez to fill Obama’s Senate vacancy. Then we’ll get to go through this in the Fourth District too. OK, so it’s a long shot. But a political junkie can hope.

A Politico Pens a Play

Playwriting isn’t a craft I normally associate with Chicago politicians, particularly those like Jay Paul Deratany, a personal injury lawyer whose political ambitions are very much alive. In February, he unsuccessfully ran for the Board of Review, the county’s property tax appeal body; now he’s talking about running for Rahm Emanuel’s open Fifth Congressional District seat.

Politicians generally have to watch what they say, and a candidate involved in entertainment runs the risk of alienating voters, as Al Franken discovered when some of his old comic bits were used against him in his Minnesota senatorial campaign.

“I don’t know if writing a play will help or hurt my political career,” says Deratany. “But I didn’t write it thinking about my career.”

The play, Haram Iran, isn’t about Chicago politics, property taxes, or personal injury law. It’s not even set in Chicago. Taking place in Iran, it tells the true sad story of two teenagers named Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari.

In 2005, Marhoni and Asgari were charged with raping a 13-year-old boy and sentenced to hang. In the aftermath of their execution, a debate erupted over whether the boys actually raped anyone or were, instead, put to death because they were caught having consensual homosexual sex. For his part, Deratany believes the rape charges were concocted and that the case represents a gross violation of human rights.

Deratany says he found himself drawn to the story last winter in the days following his loss to Joseph Berrios in the race for a seat on the Cook County Board of Review. “After that election, I needed a break from politics for a while,” he says. “I happened to see a story on the Internet about Ayaz and Mahmoud. There was some video of them.”

The video showed the boys locked up. “I watched it and bawled my eyes out,” he says. “I started reading up on the case. I was reading everything. And then I started writing.”

It was not his first play. “I wrote a comedy called Two Grooms and a Mohel. I’d rather not talk about that—I don’t think it was that good. I’m prouder of this play.”

By the spring he had finished a draft, which he showed to David Zak, artistic director of the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre. “I’d known Jay for a long time,” says Zak. “The script impressed me. I told him he had something here. It was a very moving story. It was timely. He has an ear for dialogue.” Zak agreed to direct the play, and Deratany produced it.

The play is told from the point of view of the mother of one of the boys. “I was looking for a way to make the story universal,” says Deratany. “Yes, it’s about two boys accused of committing a homosexual act. But it’s not a ‘gay play.’ It’s a human rights play.”

Haram Iran is running at the Athenaeum Theatre through December 7.v

Ben Joravsky is interviewed about this and other columns on the Mr. Radio podcast, mrradio.org/theworks. And for more on politics, see our blog Clout City.