At Democrats' Debate for Illinois Governor, Candidates Clash Over Who's a Bigger Madigan Ally
By Rick Pearson and Monique Garcia
Democratic governor candidates J.B. Pritzker and Daniel Biss clashed Wednesday night over who was more closely allied with House Speaker Michael Madigan as each sought to tarnish the other at a Downstate candidate forum.
Biss, a state senator from Evanston, contended Pritzker needed Madigan's "permission" to speak critically about the longtime Southwest Side power broker in the wake of questions about Madigan's handling of harassment complaints against his top political operatives and calls for him to step down as state Democratic chairman.
Pritzker countered that Biss owed his political career to Madigan and the campaign money the speaker provided Biss to win a legislative seat.
Pritzker and Biss were able to confront each other more directly because another top rival was absent. Kenilworth developer Chris Kennedy did not participate after his campaign said the candidate injured his back while exercising Wednesday morning and was under doctor's orders not to travel.
The debate was held at the University of Illinois at Springfield and hosted by the State-Journal Register and WMAY radio. It was the only major Downstate forum in the Democratic governor primary campaign.
For more than a week, Madigan has found his leadership questioned over his handling of misconduct allegations involving his political operation. In recent days, Madigan has shed two former loyal top political operatives over complaints stemming from 2016 campaigns.
This week's case involved lobbyist Shaw Decremer, with Democratic state Rep. Deb Conroy of Villa Park saying his conduct involved "an abuse of power" and suggesting that "bullies" needed to be called out.
Last week's case involved a sexual harassment complaint made by former Madigan campaign worker Alaina Hampton about her supervisor Kevin Quinn, a key Madigan operative until he was cut loose.
Some Democratic lawmakers are asking for a fully independent investigation of Madigan's handling of the allegations. Hampton, who has filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has alleged Madigan's operation delayed its internal investigation to prevent her from filing legal charges in the state.
Biss indicated he agreed. "It took J.B. Pritzker a week to get permission from Mike Madigan to even name him in talking about this sexual harassment cover-up," Biss said.
"I've called for Mike Madigan to step down as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. I'm a Democratic elected official. He's lost my faith and the ability to lead this party -- and I think there's been real questions called about his leadership of the House as well," the senator said.
Madigan has been around "too long," is "too powerful" and "has been a problem in the state of Illinois" and the state Democratic Party "for quite some time," Biss added.
But Pritzker did not answer a panelist's question of whether Madigan should give up his party chairmanship, his speaker role or both.
"He hasn't gotten permission yet from Madigan to answer that question," said Biss in noting the dodge.
For his part, Pritzker lashed out at Biss and labeled "utterly ridiculous" the lawmaker's claims of independence from Madigan.
"This is a state representative who got elected with Mike Madigan's help, who accepted tens of thousands of dollars from him, who ran Mike Madigan's super PAC and who's accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from Springfield insiders, bankers and lobbyists," Pritzker said.
Pritzker said he agreed with calls for an independent investigation of Madigan's handling of the harassment complaints. "We need to make sure there is an independent, fully independent investigation -- something that is totally independent of Speaker Madigan's operation and Speaker Madigan himself."
State campaign finance records show Biss has received more than $261,000 from political funds that Madigan controls, with more than $220,000 going toward his first election to the House in 2010. Biss moved over to the Senate in 2013.
Biss also led a $10 million federal super political action committee effort in 2016 aimed at trying to link Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to Donald Trump in an effort to aid state legislative candidates. Pritzker and Madigan were donors to that effort.
Against that Pritzker pushback, Biss sought to stake out his case as the progressive in the contest.
"Here's the truth. There's a Pritzker-Madigan wing of the Democratic Party and there's the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that I'm a part of. And I'll work with anybody," Biss said.
But Pritzker contended that an "independent investigation" of Madigan's handling of the complaints "is now going to proceed" and that "everybody up and down the line who is responsible should be held accountable."
After the debate, Pritzker was asked how to ensure an independent investigation given Madigan's wide influence.
"You've got to make sure whoever it is does not have a connection to the speaker and if that means even having somebody from out of the state, that's fine," said Pritzker, echoing Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy's Tuesday call for an out-of-state probe.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown has said the speaker told Cassidy that he would "cooperate fully" and would ask the speaker's designated outside counsel, Kelly Smith-Haley, to "assist."
Smith-Haley's brother Bill Smith is a partner at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a lobbying firm, while another brother, Mike Smith, is a principal and senior director there. In June, Madigan's former political director Will Cousineau joined Cornerstone. Cousineau worked for Madigan for nearly 18 years, according to the firm's website, and was in charge of political operations in 2016 when the harassment issues allegedly took place.
On Wednesday, Smith-Haley told the Tribune that "there are a lot of degrees of separation" and suggested if she were a man, she would not be facing the same questions about her independence. "I do think there is a gender component," said the attorney, who indicated that as of now, she is not investigating any cases because no one has lodged any complaints with her.
Bob Daiber, the Madison County regional superintendent of schools and the only Downstate candidate in the race, called attacks on Madigan's leadership "political nonsense" that needs to be put aside.
"There's going to be nonindependent investigation of this guy. He's not going anywhere. Don't be fooled," said Daiber, who afterward said Madigan should "absolutely not" run for another term as party chairman.
Also taking part in the forum were Chicago activist Tio Hardiman and perennial candidate Robert Marshall, who previously has run for office as a Republican.
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