Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, says he normally tries not to comment on local primary races.
This year, though, the bruising battle between Dan Patlak and Sean Morrison for the District 1 seat on the Cook County Board of Review spurred Brady to make an exception.
"This race is a unique circumstance, no doubt about it," he said.
Brady said he backs Patlak, a Wheeling resident and the incumbent in the race. He said he believes Morrison, a Chicago native who now lives in Palos Park, isn't a genuine Republican candidate at all, but a "Democratic plant." (Morrison denies this allegation.)
"I see this as a blatant attempt to get a Democrat into that seat," Brady said. "So I felt it necessary to weigh in."
Brady is not the only person interested in the race. It has galvanized conservative bloggers, commentators and politicians from all over the District 1 area, which stretches from the northwest corner of the county down to the southwest suburbs.
Why all the interest? Local political observers say one reason is that Patlak's seat is one of the few held by a Republican in Cook County government. And they say the board's function -- ruling on property-assessment appeals filed by residents and businesses -- is particularly important in a down economy.
"It's a very important race," said Mike Schroeder, Wheeling Township supervisor and Patlak supporter. "(Patlak) defeated a Democrat for that seat, which is pretty unusual in Cook County. We can't afford to give it back."
Cook County Commissioner Liz Gorman of Orland Park is backing Morrison in the race and has appeared in radio ads on his behalf.
"In this economy, we have to be particularly vigilant that taxpayers are getting a fair deal,"she said. "An ethical board of review helps with that. People are struggling enough these days."
The race pits Morrison, owner of an Alsip-based security company, against Patlak, former Wheeling Township assessor and a former board of review analyst, for the second time. Patlak defeated Morrison in the 2010 primary, garnering 53 percent of the vote.
Mudslinging has been a part of this primary battle from the start. Morrison has repeatedly stated that Patlak is "under investigation." He bases that on the fact that he has filed formal complaints against Patlak with state and federal authorities. The complaints accuse Patlak of electioneering and engaging in "pay to play" fundraising practices. Patlak denies both claims, and points out that Morrison has failed to offer concrete evidence of either one.
Patlak's campaign has sent out emails that question Morrison's business dealings, referring to his company as "mysterious sounding" and blasting Morrison for investing in a failed reality-television show about female martial-arts fighters. He's also accused Morrison of misleading people about his educational background. Morrison denies misleading anyone about his background, and he said he's proud of owning a successful business that has created jobs.
Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University, said for the most part, he's not surprised by the back-and-forth between the two candidates and the vitriol of their supporters. But he is struck by Morrison's claim that Patlak is being investigated.
"That seems pretty shabby," Green said. "You don't kid around with an investigation. It's a serious thing. Without confirmation that one is under way, I'm not sure you should make that claim."
As is common practice, authorities won't confirm or deny whether Patlak is being investigated. This week, Morrison posted documents to his website that he says support his "pay to play" claim. He submitted these to the U.S. attorney's office earlier this week.
The documents include lists of people who contributed to Patlak's campaigns and then later received assessment reductions from the full board of review. However, the board's job is to grant reductions where warranted and Patlak said nothing in the documents shows that campaign contributions influenced the board's findings in particular cases.
Some have suggested that a "north Cook County vs. south Cook County" dynamic has inflamed the race. But Gorman and others deny that, even though many north suburban township organizations have endorsed Patlak, while many south suburban ones are backing Morrison.
"I don't look at this as a (north vs. south) issue," said Shaun Murphy, a Worth Township Republican Committeeman, via email. The Worth Township GOP has endorsed Morrison. Gorman, who represents a county board district that stretches from Orland Park to Prospect Heights, agreed.
"I've noticed that suburban Cook County residents tend to have similar priorities, no matter which side of the county they live on," she said.
Murphy and other GOP officials also said that this primary, as heated as it's been, will not leave permanent scars on the Cook County Republican party.
"Primaries are an important part of the process," Murphy said. "After (it) is complete and the Republican voters have chosen our candidate, it is imperative that we unite behind the candidate."