Illinois Democratic Party Chair Funds Mailers Attacking Progressive Candidates

Michael Madigan's intervention could have the effect of keeping progressives out of the Democratic Party’s state central committee, a highly coveted role.

Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks at a news conference on the first day of a special session on education funding at the state Capitol, Wednesday, July 26, 2017, in Springfield, Ill. (Justin Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks at a news conference on the first day of a special session on education funding at the state Capitol, Wednesday, July 26, 2017, in Springfield, Ill. Photo: Justin Fowler/The State Journal-Register/AP

The Illinois Democratic machine has unleashed a wave of attacks on fellow Democrats in local races, with state party chair Michael Madigan funding mailers knocking several progressive candidates as Donald Trump stooges and foot soldiers in the tea party.

Madigan’s campaign committee has spent nearly $19,000 on mailers attacking two Our Revolution-backed candidates in State Central Democratic Committee elections, Elizabeth Lindquist and Art Bardsley. The postcards say Lindquist and Bardsley are Trump supporters and “members of a group supported by Tea Party activists.” The group referenced by the mailers is Represent.Us, an anti-corruption group that brings together people from all sides of the political spectrum. 

The attack comes as the Illinois machine faces one of its most credible assaults in a generation, with Madigan ally Rep. Daniel Lipinski facing a primary challenge from Marie Newman, a progressive, pro-choice advocate who is now neck in neck with him in the polls. And in Chicago, a populist-reformer is going right at the heart of the machine, targeting the pol in charge of Cook County’s tax assessment, a key source of power for the state party bosses.

Madigan represents the backbone of Illinois Democratic Party politics, having served as state party chair for 20 years and as speaker of the state House since 1983. His intervention in the committee race could have the effect of keeping progressives out of the party’s state central committee, which comprises one man and one woman from each congressional district in Illinois. The seats are highly coveted among those seeking to influence or hold power within the Illinois Democratic Party, and committee members choose the state’s Democratic National Committee representatives.

Steve Brown, Madigan’s press secretary, defended the mailers. “I would assume the mailers are in districts where we’re supporting incumbents, which tends to be our general philosophy,” Brown said in a phone interview with The Intercept.

Bardsley and Lindquist are running in the state’s 16th Congressional District against incumbent committee members John Nelson, an attorney who has held the seat since 1992, and Christine Benson, who won the committee position in 2014 unopposed.  

Another mailer sent by Madigan’s committee claimed Lindquist and Bardsley would “bring a Tea Party agenda to our community,” and claimed that they support “slashing Medicare and Medicaid, repealing Obamacare, privatizing Social Security, and dangerous anti-environment policies.” Lindquist has publicly opposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and vocally supported Medicare for All, a Bernie Sanders proposal for single-payer health insurance. Bardsley’s platform includes pushing for alternative and renewable energies, preserving natural lands, and tuition-free public education.

“I’ve been an FDR-style Democrat my entire adult life, I’m 67 and current second vice-chair for the Winnebago County Democratic Party and never have I been called a ‘fake’ Democrat until the ‘leader’ of my state party attempted to smear me as such by spending at least $16K on not one, but two full-color, front-and-back, full-page flyers accusing me of being everything I have stood against for as long as I can remember,” Bardsley said in an interview. “Madigan knows if I’m elected that I will cast a vote against him for party chairman.”

Madigan’s committee also sent out mailers in the race for Illinois’ 5th District, favoring incumbent Cynthia Santos over Melissa Lindberg, the chair of Democracy For America’s Chapter in Northside Chicago. The mailers portray Santos as a candidate who stands up to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who, in fact, appointed Santos to the State Pollution Control Board in 2016. Santos served as an elected commissioner of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago since 1996, before leaving the position to serve in Rauner’s administration, and was first elected to the State Central Committee in 2000.

“I believe the Democratic Party is at a junction: either it changes or it dies,” Lindberg told The Intercept in an interview. “I think ‘Friends of Michael J. Madigan’ is sending out mailers in support of Cynthia Santos because otherwise the voters of the 5th District would have no idea who she is — and she has been an elected official since 1996.”

Madigan’s committee, Friends of Michael J. Madigan, has funded opposition mailers against Democrats in other state races as well.

In the election for state House District 38, Madigan’s committee spent nearly $3,800 last week on mailers against each of the Democratic Primary candidates Cecil Matthews and Max Solomon. A week before, Madigan spent almost $2,500 on opposition mailers against both candidates, and more than $3,900 a few days earlier. Matthews has pledged not to accept any donations greater than $500 from any individual or corporation per election cycle. The other two candidates in the race are Olympia Fields Village President Debbie Meyers-Martin and Assistant State Attorney David Bonner. They are competing for the open seat vacated by State Rep. Al Riley, who is retiring and has endorsed Bonner. 

Asked about Madigan’s intervention in the 38th District, where there is no incumbent candidate, Brown said, “We are working with new candidates who we believe would make better representatives or members of the state central committee.”

“Embattled and failed House Speaker Mike Madigan — whose office failed and refused to investigate or act on several incidences of sexual harassment and assault against women — has accused me of waging war against women and likened me to Trump,” Solomon said in a statement. Madigan is currently facing calls to resign due to reports of several sexual harassment complaints that went unpunished in his office over the past five years. “It is false, rubbish, and reprehensible. House Speaker Mike Madigan — whose term should have been limited — is exactly what’s wrong with Illinois,” added Solomon, who previously ran for mayor of Hazel Crest, Illinois, in 2017 and for a state Senate position in 2016. 

In an emailed statement, Matthews said, “Madigan’s committee paid over $12,000 for these ads according to public records. With this type of wasteful spending, it is clear that this long-time politician is afraid of the progress I’m looking to make in our communities and state.”

Both candidates denied the claims made in the flyers that they are anti-abortion or part of the war on women; Matthews is running on a pro-choice platform that includes legalizing recreational marijuana and eliminating big money from politics. The Chicago Tribune endorsed Matthews, saying he wouldn’t be “beholden to House Speaker Mike Madigan.”

The battle between establishment Democrats and progressive insurgents is playing out in other races across the state as well. In the governor’s race, Daniel Biss, a mathematician and state senator who reported an income of less than $35,000 last year on his taxes is taking on billionaire J.B. Pritzker, who has poured in $56 million of his own money into his campaign so far. Pritzker is the leading frontrunner and received endorsements from the majority of County Democratic Party chairs in the state, as Biss has positioned himself as the progressive populist choice. In the state Senate, Biss managed to pass a bill he authored to establish a public campaign financing system for candidates who reach a certain number of small donors and cap individual donations at $500. Madigan has yet to consider the House version of the bill.

In one of the state’s most competitive congressional primaries, the Illinois Democratic Party has backed Lipinski over Newman, who has received support from Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., EMILY’s List, Our Revolution, and several other progressive and liberal groups. The Illinois Democratic Party has donated $5,000 toward Lipinski’s campaign against Newman, according to filings made with the Federal Elections Commission, but has not yet contributed to any other congressional races.

Correction: March 9, 2018, 1:03 p.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the group Represents.Us as an organization that advocates for politicians, when in fact it only advocates for certain issues. It has since been updated.

Top photo: Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks at a news conference on the first day of a special session on education funding at the state capitol, Wednesday, July 26, 2017, in Springfield, Ill.

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