Jim Dey: Did Madigan act under color of law?

Jim Dey: Did Madigan act under color of law?

The USS. Michael J. Madigan has taken a lot of incoming fire over the past 40-plus years that includes everything from unflattering newspaper reports, rhetorical attacks from individuals and groups with whom he's battled and millions of dollars spent on unflattering campaign commercials challenging his fundamental character and decency.

They've had all the impact of a few spitballs tossed in the direction of a battleship — none whatsoever.

Despite widely unfavorable public opinion polls, the veteran Chicago politician, who is both speaker of the Illinois House and chairman of the state Democratic Party, remains firmly entrenched in power.

Call him what you want — the Godfather, the Kahn of Madiganistgan, the velvet hammer, hot molten evil, political savant but policy idiot — Madigan remains the man.

He is, perhaps, more powerful now than he has ever been, as his recent political victories over Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner demonstrate.

But a remarkable thing happened last week in Chicago, something that may disappear in a twinkling or, more ominously, throw a speck or two of sand in Madigan's eye.

U.S. Judge Matthew Kennelly reopened the door to a federal lawsuit alleging that Madigan wrongly used his power and influence to win the March 2016 Democratic Party primary.

The decision by Kennelly had Madigan's foes crowing, perhaps prematurely.

"These claims are still potentially subject to dismissal based on the remaining arguments in defendants' motion to dismiss the original complaint that the court did not initially consider," Kennelly wrote.

But that didn't stop Tony Peraica, the lawyer for defeated primary candidate Jason Gonzales, from promising to subject Madigan, his political cronies and his multiple campaign committees to withering scrutiny during a pretrial discovery process.

"We're going to check every crevice. It's going to be wonderful," Peraica told the Chicago Tribune.

Peraica's client was even more euphoric.

"Mike Madigan will leave Illinois politics, either in handcuffs or a coffin or I will beat him," said Gonzales.

The lawsuit is aimed at holding Madigan legally responsible for two time-tested dirty tricks — staples in Madigan's political tool box. Madigan and his campaign recruited two sham candidates with Hispanic-sounding names to run against him and Gonzales and orchestrated a widespread lying campaign that claimed Gonzales was ineligible to hold public office because he had a criminal record.

There is no dispute Madigan's campaign recruited the sham candidates — Joe Barbosa and Grasiela Rodriguez. The story was widely covered in the Chicago news media. On top of that, he's been doing it for years, mostly on the Republican side of the ballot.

Further, there is no dispute that Gonzales was eligible to hold public office, not ineligible as the Madigan campaign states, because, despite a criminal record he compiled as a youth, Gonzales received a 2015 pardon from Gov. Pat Quinn.

But is hardball politics Madigan-style, something that barely raises the eyebrows of most Chicagoans, anything more than sleazy business as usual?

It could be. Gonzales "alleges that Madigan used funds he controls by virtue governmental offices — including the counts of Friends (of Michael Madigan), the Democratic Majority Fund and 13th Ward Organization and the Democratic Party of Illinois — to inform voters that Gonzales is a convicted felon. Perhaps more importantly, he also alleges Madigan used resources available to him due to his position as a state representative and Speaker of the Illinois House — including political favors, control of campaign funds and precinct captains — to discredit Gonzales," Kennelly wrote.

"In sum, Gonzales has adequately alleged that Madigan used resources available to him by virtue of his official positions and therefore that he acted under color of state law," the judge concluded.

Gonzales alleges multiple violations of his civil rights and named multiple defendants, including state Rep. Silvana Tabares, the two sham candidates, the Madigan campaign workers who filed the sham candidates' petitions immediately after Gonzales filed his petitions and Madigan campaign organizations.

Much of it is based on a racial discrimination claim that "(Madigan & Co.) registered these sham candidates to split up the Hispanic vote and prevent the election of a Hispanic representative."

The law, of course, is one thing, and politics on the ground, particularly Madigan's Hispanic majority district, is quite another.

No sane political analyst ever gave Gonzales the slightest chance of beating Madigan on his home turf. Madigan controls politics completely in the 22nd district, assiduously attending to every constituent need and using his clout to shower the district in state funds.

Ultimately, Madigan collected 65 percent of the vote in the four-way primary. But it's been his practice to leave nothing to chance. So recruiting the two sham candidates was part of a longstanding pattern and practice of leaving nothing to chance.

In fact, Madigan's lawyers claim, among other things, there was "an alternative, equally plausible, non-discriminatory explanation" for the tactics Madigan employed to crush Gonzanez — "that defendants targeted Gonzales because he challenged Madigan, not due to his race."

In other words, it was business, not personal. And it's most certainly true.

That is how the Godfather, the one in the movie and the other who leads the Illinois House, approaches the acquisition and exercise of power.

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