One recent morning Brendan Houlihan, candidate for the Cook County Board of Review, was looking over the shoulder of an election board hearing officer, squinting to make out the signature on a voter registration card being flashed on the computer screen before him. They’d been staring at names, addresses, and registration cards on the computer screen for hours as he tried to beat back a challenge to his nominating petitions that could get him knocked off the ballot in the March 21 primary.

As Houlihan sees it, this is the “other side” of democracy. “If you want to run for office, the first time around someone’s going to challenge you,” he says. “I guess it’s the process.”

It’s true it’s not unusual for a first-time candidate to be challenged. Why waste your time and money campaigning if you can knock your opponent off the ballot based on technicalities? But Houlihan’s case is a little different than most in Cook County. If he gets bounced from the ballot, Maureen Murphy, the Republican incumbent, will almost certainly win the general election in November by default. Yet top Democratic leaders in the county and state seem content to concede the office.

And it’s not just any office. The three-person Board of Review oversees property tax appeals in Cook County. Each year thousands of petitioners come before the board, pleading for a reduction. Forget about the potential to redress the inequities of our property tax system–and by teaming up with independent-minded commissioner Larry Rogers, Houlihan could give fits to the well-connected tax-appeal lawyers used to having their way with the board. You’d think Democrats would want to win the seat if only because it’s a bonanza for fund-raising. Over the years board commissioners have raised boatloads of money in campaign contributions from lawyers with cases before them. Commissioner Joseph Berrios, a Democrat, has a campaign fund of more than a million dollars, according to disclosure statements filed with the state. Murphy has about $300,000 in hers.

Houlihan comes from a family of politicians. His late father, John Houlihan, was a state rep from the far south suburbs. His brother William works for Senator Dick Durbin. His brother-in-law, Lloyd Betourney, runs a political consulting firm. But Houlihan has never run for office, and he makes no claims to proficiency in property tax issues. A resident of Palos Heights, he works as an investment counselor for a downtown brokerage house. His passion is Irish folk dancing–he teaches and dances all over the southwest side.

By contrast, his opponent, Murphy, is a familiar face in southwest suburban Republican politics. A former state rep from Evergreen Park and former chair of the Cook County Republican Party, she’s been a commissioner on the Board of Review since 1998.

On December 23 a woman named Santa Ruggiero filed a case before the Cook County Board of Elections arguing that Houlihan should be tossed off the ballot because, among other things, his “nomination papers contain petition sheets with the names” of people who don’t live in the district. But everyone familiar with the case–including Houlihan–figures that Murphy is behind Ruggiero’s challenge. (Murphy did not return calls.)

What surprises Houlihan is that he doesn’t have a Democratic opponent in the primary. Just as in 2002, when Murphy ran unopposed, neither state Democratic chair Michael Madigan nor Cook County Democratic Party chair Thomas Lyons–both of whom specialize in property tax law–has slated or endorsed any candidate to run against her. “I guess they’re comfortable with Maureen in there, because this is the second time they’ve given her a pass,” Houlihan says. “They certainly haven’t given me any help in this challenge.”

Madigan’s chief spokesman, Steve Brown, says he’s not familiar with the race but notes that Houlihan hasn’t asked Madigan for assistance with his petition challenge. “I have no idea why” Madigan’s not supporting Houlihan, says Brown. “Maybe he’s not sought the help. If the guy’s got flawed petitions that’s a good reason why your so-called party chieftains wouldn’t support him.”

But it’s not like Madigan to give Republican incumbents a pass. Generally he’s been willing to back long-shot Democrats in Republican districts, if only to keep incumbents too busy to help out in other races. If Murphy runs unopposed again, she’s free to dispatch her campaign workers to help Republicans in nearby state rep races Madigan cares about.

Ironically, the board seat itself is very winnable for the Democrats–Cook County’s suburbs have become increasingly Democratic over the last few years. The district went for John Kerry over President Bush in the 2004 election. “We could win it,” says Patrick Botterman, committeeman of Wheeling Township. “This could be a Democratic seat.”

In fact, Botterman, one of the few Democratic officials actively helping Houlihan, thinks the rookie could be a strong candidate, if nothing else because of his name. “Ideally, I’d want a woman candidate named Murphy,” Botterman jokes. “But Brendan Houlihan’s pretty good.”

A lot of Democrats think Houlihan’s candidacy caught Madigan and Lyons by surprise. “Madigan must know the Democrats can win that seat–very few people are as aware of demographic trends as the speaker,” says one state rep, who asked not to be identified. “Maureen and Madigan must have reached a comfortable truce. Otherwise, believe me, he’d be going after her. Houlihan’s the accidental tourist who just stumbled in there.”

Houlihan says he’s sticking it out despite the petition challenge, which is why he found himself hunched before a computer screen in the hearing room of a commissioner for the Chicago Board of Elections. Ruggiero and her representatives raked over Houlihan’s petitions, identifying more than 2,000 nominating signatures they say should be stricken for various violations–the voter doesn’t live in the district, or the signature on the petition doesn’t match the signature on the voter registration card. Now two hearing officers were going through page after page of Houlihan’s nominating petitions. One read off Ruggiero’s objection, and the other ran a computer search. If the second hearing officer thought the objection was valid, she sustained it. If Houlihan disagreed with the ruling he objected. He’d gathered about 7,000 signatures. He needs 4,984 to remain on the ballot.

It was a large room, and there were several other hearings going on. The clerks spoke softly. One of them stifled a yawn. At one point Houlihan got mixed-up–instead of saying “objection” he said “overruled.”

“I can overrule,” the hearing examiner told him with a slight smile. “You can’t.” On they went. The address with this signature fell outside of the district. That fellow printed his name when the rules say he must sign it. This voter identified himself as Dave but goes by David on his voter registration card.

Just before noon a clerk announced a lunch break. “You have to leave the area until one o’clock,” he said. “Then we will resume until 4:45. Cases continued for tomorrow will start at 8 AM.”

At press time Houlihan estimated that he’d had 400 signatures tossed. He faced at least another week of hearings. Then there’s the possibility of appeals.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.