Jim Dey: 'Madigan' film's premiere makes waves

Jim Dey: 'Madigan' film's premiere makes waves

It wasn't your typical Hollywood movie extravaganza, but the release of a new documentary about Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan a month before the Nov. 8 election has the potential to shake up state politics.

At a minimum, it's enraged Madigan backers, who've already begun to counterattack.

"Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics," the 57-minute documentary widely denounced as a hit piece before it was even finished, debuted last night at a theater in Springfield.

It's the first of nine scheduled showings across the state from Oct. 12-27.

Diana Rickert, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Policy Institute, said that is just the start. She said in addition to theater showings, the IPI will be presenting "Madigan" on local television stations — 7 p.m. Saturday on WBUI (The CW), 4 p.m. Sunday on WICS (ABC), 9:30 p.m. Sunday on WCCU (Fox), 7 p.m. Oct. 22 on WBUI (CW) and 4:30 p.m. Oct. 23 on WCCU (Fox) — as a prelude to even broader distribution.

"We will have it available online (at michaelmadigan.com) in the next few weeks," she said.

IPI, a free-market think tank with offices in Springfield and Chicago, was founded in 2002. It has long been at odds with Illinois' prevailing political orthodoxy that is reflected by Madigan, a political powerhouse once labeled by Chicago Magazine as the "King of Illinois."

In an effort to give Illinoisans a deeper look at Madigan and his political organization, IPI contracted with a Texas-based documentary film group EmergentOrder to do the movie.

John Papola, the CEO of EmergentOrder, insisted his organization had creative control over the final products. But critics have questioned that statement, pointing out that IPI employee Austin Berg contributed to the documentary's script.

At the same time, three individuals interviewed by the filmmakers — Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, Trib cartoonist Scott Stantis and Capitol Fax's Rich Miller — have expressed regrets over giving interviews to the filmmakers.

"Make no mistake, this was political propaganda, timed for release just before the Nov. 8 election," Natasha Korecki of Politico writes.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown agreed. He wrote that "its purpose is to manipulate you."

"As far as the movie itself, it's really not all that bad," he wrote.

Whatever people say about IPI's motives, "Madigan" will stand or fall based on its content.

Although the movie struck the wrong note on a couple of points, there's not much in it regarding Madigan' operations that has not been reported in detail by various news outlets over the years. It's more a compilation than a revelation.

A highly skilled political tactician, Madigan has held office for roughly 40 years and been speaker for roughly 30. The documentary states what anyone who pays attention already knows — "no bill gets passed without his blessing."

"The film goes over Madigan's years in office, the power he's amassed, the millions of dollars his law firm has made in property tax appeals and even gives the impression that Madigan was the force behind Rod Blagojevich's ouster from office (failing to mention that whole part about Blagojevich's arrest on federal corruption charges)," Korecki writes.

She's absolutely on point about the Blagojevich impeachment as a weak spot, but the rest of Korecki's laundry list in beyond dispute.

In that sense, "Madigan" is really about "the Chicago way," the city's self-serving, corrupt politics, and how the Speaker has played the system to maximum advantage.

The documentary described Madigan as a "no-nonsense Irish family man" who is admired by the constituents of his Chicago legislative district.

"He is famous for his thoroughness and attention to detail," the narrator states.

But Madigan's enormous political success also is based on a massive job patronage machine that has allowed him to honeycomb government at all levels with loyalists.

They, in turn, finance his organization by kicking back 8 percent of their salaries and working on his campaigns.

"There's never intimidation. It just doesn't happen," Madigan explains in one interview included in the documentary.

But those interviewed made it clear that Madigan is so feared that he doesn't need to make threats to achieve his goals.

Equally important is the power to gerrymander legislative districts. University of Illinois Chicago political science Professor Dick Simpson expounds at length on the power that goes with deciding who gets elected to the Legislature.

Former Republican state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger outlines how legislative rules drafted by Madigan give him control of the bill-passing process.

All in all, "Madigan" is an interesting tutorial of how the 74-year-old pol grew up in the Chicago political machine and used what he learned to become the most powerful politician in Illinois. But it's not for the squeamish.

Perhaps that's why a pro-Madigan organization launched an online attack on the documentary.

Calling itself "Illinois Policy," an obvious takeoff on the Illinois Policy Institute, the organization released a bogus movie trailer spoofing the documentary.

"From the same people who brought you fake newspapers, fake radio networks and fake policy institutes comes the fake documentary," a British-accented narrator states.

The fake trailer suggests Gov. Bruce Rauner is behind the documentary and that he is "so obsessed with Madigan that he can't do his job" and "paranoid about going to prison."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369

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