Jim Dey | Tarnished Madigan rehabbing his public persona

Jim Dey | Tarnished Madigan rehabbing his public persona

Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker is the man of the hour in Springfield as well as communities all around Illinois where citizens keep track of the debased state of the state of Illinois.

With the 53-year-old Pritzker to be sworn into office Monday, there's intense speculation about how he'll fare in the herculean task of addressing this state's dire financial problems.

At best, he'll have his hands full. At worst, he'll be crushed under an avalanche of unpaid bills, budget deficits and pension debts.

But there's another man in the spotlight, too. It's the Diminutive Don himself, aka Democratic House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.

A member of the Illinois House since 1971 and speaker for all but two years since 1983, the all-powerful Madigan has seen governors — Democrat and Republican — come and go.

Specifically, he's said, "Hello, you must be going" to former Govs. Richard Ogilvie, Dan Walker, Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, George Ryan, Rod Blagojevich, Pat Quinn and, now, Bruce Rauner.

Next governor up — billionaire Chicago businessman and political neophyte Pritzker.

Madigan is especially looking forward to the transition from Rauner — his hated foe — to Pritzker — his uber-wealthy political partner

And why not? Rauner gave Madigan nothing but trouble for the past four years while Pritzker's billions financed a victory in November that puts all of state government — lock, stock and barrel — under Democratic Party control.

No wonder Madigan on Monday made a unusually jovial public appearance before reporters, flashing a broad smile — a sharp contrast to his usually serpentine visage — and pretending to respond to reporters' questions.

But despite the sunny demeanor, Madigan is still smarting from his battles with the despised Rauner. The outgoing governor spent millions of dollars on campaign ads that helped make Madigan's name mud throughout the state.

Even Madigan's resounding victory in November wasn't enough to purge the bile he feels over Rauner's tap dance on his reputation.

That's why — for the second time in two months — Madigan is overseeing a public relations effort to boost his fallen image.

He wants the public to forget about his reputation as a political ogre who's contributed so generously to Illinois' reputation as national laughingstock, a once-thriving state — where public debt is overwhelming — from which thousands of people escape each year.

The most recent effort is a Madigan-financed television advertising campaign portraying the longtime Chicago pol as a good guy fighting the forces of evil.

The barbarians are at the gate, the ad suggests, but a narrator says to never fear in the battle of us-against-them because Madigan is here:

"They tried to take away health care. And cut funding for breast cancer screening. They even failed to act as our veterans died. But it's a new day in Illinois. With an agenda to put families first again. To fight for affordable health care. Equal pay for women. Keep our families safe. And for the wealthiest to pay their fair share so we can get a break."

That broadside is followed by Madigan solemnly intoning that, "In the fights that lie ahead, Democrats are on your side."

It's unclear what kind of impact Madigan's advertising campaign will have.

Springfield political analyst Rich Miller wasn't particularly impressed.

"It's not a horrible ad and it probably won't do any damage (I mean, how much lower can his approval ratings go?), but I doubt it does any real good," wrote Miller, who suggests "the best way to rehabilitate his image" would be for the new governor and legislators "to actually solve the problems this state is facing."

No one should hold their breaths on that — this state's problems are borderline unsolvable.

But Madigan's TV commercials will have a more positive effect than his initial attempt to boost his image.

Shortly after the November election, the Illinois Democratic Party, of which Madigan is chairman, issued a lengthy press release denouncing GOP attacks on Madigan as, among other things, "hateful," "laughable," "desperate" and "cheap." The release also praised Madigan at length for his "smart economic and social policies that ... create a state that works for all of us."

It was, to say the least, a revealing exercise in self-praise. But most news outlets ignored Madigan's ostentatious tribute to himself, limiting its public reach. He won't have that problem with his television campaign.

Madigan is not given to public introspection. So he's not going to say he needs a hug to go along with his vast power, perks and patronage. Perhaps that's why he responded to a question about his effort to remake his image with two questions.

"Why not? What's wrong with communication?" Madigan replied.

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

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