By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Republican Party’s calls for voters to “fire” powerful House Democrat Michael Madigan are heating up ahead of the November election, but whether the campaign will work remains to be seen, one observer says.
“Mike Madigan is a very durable politician. He’s very smart, and people have come at him before and tried to make him an issue and haven’t succeeded,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
The Republican Party, which is the minority party in the Legislature, is trying to capitalize on low approval ratings for Madigan and state lawmakers in general to attract votes in November. The GOP may not succeed in gaining control of the Legislature, but it could gain seats.
The key is linking all Democrats to Madigan, a powerful longtime Chicago lawmaker who is known to most Illinois voters.
“What this is is Republicans in Illinois saying that a vote for a Democrat in the Illinois House is a vote for Mike Madigan. If the Republicans can take control of the House, Madigan is out as speaker,” Yepsen said.
“This is not a new tactic. What’s new here is the environment and the antipathy toward Springfield and the problems that exist. People in Illinois do know who Mike Madigan is. Maybe this is the year that (the tactic) works.”
The state Republican Party repeatedly has painted Madigan as a leprechaun, a reference to his stature and heritage, who “stole Illinois taxpayers’ pot o’ gold.” Now the party’s leaders are asking the federal government to investigate thousands of dollars in donations from a union to a Madigan-controlled campaign fund leading up to Friday’s do-nothing special legislative session on pension reform. It was quid pro quo to kill reform efforts, the GOP charges.
“Mike Madigan might as well hang a ‘for sale’ sign from the dome of the state capitol,” Illinois GOP chairman Pat Brady said in a news release Tuesday. “This clearly does not pass the smell test, and it merits investigation by federal authorities.”
The GOP accused Madigan of accepting campaign contributions from the Service Employees International Union, which represents some state workers, on Friday, the same day legislators failed to agree on comprehensive pension reform for state employees and retirees during a special session convened by Gov. Pat Quinn. Two donations — $97,000 total — from SEIU showed up Friday in a fund called “Democratic Majority,” which Madigan controls and uses for elections of Democratic state House lawmakers.
SEIU denied Brady’s accusation, saying the donations were made weeks earlier but weren’t reported to the Illinois State Board of Elections until Friday. The allegations, the union says, are “baseless election-year rhetoric” and noted that the contributions are not unlike other donations the union has made in previous years.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown called the GOP’s efforts “a swing and a miss.”
“They’ve done this for 25 years, and it’s gotten them nowhere. There’s no real change. Two years ago, they rented out billboards on the Tri-State tollway against Madigan. They were pretty expensive,” he said.
Brown noted that Republicans killed the pension bill before the House even convened Friday.
“They’re not giving anybody a reason to vote for Republicans. And that’s the first thing you need to do,” he said.
Yepsen said he doubts the accusation will gain traction with voters.
“Illinois politics, like politics all over America, is awash in money. And voters say, ‘A plague on all your houses.’ I don’t think either party can take the high ground in an argument about campaign spending,” he said.
“I also don’t think it’s a voting issue. I have never heard of a voter saying, ‘I’m going to change my vote because of money somebody got.’ It just doesn’t work that way. Votes for the Legislature are about local candidates and local issues.”