Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan continues to flounder in the court of public opinion, taking hit after hit for the ruthless manner in which he exercises his vast power in the state legislature.
“There was a time, not so long ago, when it would have been laughable to suggest Democrats kick Madigan to the curb. That time is over,” Crain’s Chicago Business editorialized last week in the wake of a report decrying the atmosphere of bullying and harassment that pervades the Madigan-run General Assembly.
Crain’s is just the latest media outlet to chastise the veteran Chicago power broker. But Madigan has been the subject of public criticism many times. It doesn’t bother him much and has no effect.
The courts are a different thing. Federal prosecutors and civil lawsuits represent real threats to his way of doing things.
So Madigan is celebrating last week’s decision by a federal judge to dismiss a civil-rights lawsuit filed against him for manipulating the outcome of his 2016 primary election by placing two phony candidates on the ballot to draw vote from his real opponent, Jason Gonzales.
U.S. Judge Matthew Kennelly acknowledged the accuracy of Gonzales’ allegations against Madigan. But he said that because Gonzales’ and media outlets had publicized the Speaker’s questionable tactics the election results should stand.
“... the court concluded that the undisputed fact that, before election day, Gonzales publicized and campaigned on the allegation that (Joe) Barboza and (Graciela) Rodriguez were sham candidates precludes his claim. In this case, there is un-rebutted evidence Gonzales made Madigan’s deceptive tactics a central issue in his campaign,” Kennelly concluded.
The judge said the fact that Madigan’s organization had placed sham candidates on the ballot was widely publicized, giving voters the opportunity to “rebuke Madigan by electing his challenger.”
“Instead, Madigan prevailed by a substantial margin. the court may not appropriately second-guess the voters’ choice without displacing the people’s right to govern their own affairs and making the judiciary just another political tool for one faction to wield against its rivals,” Kennelly wrote.
Gonzales expressed disappointment over the judge’s ruling, suggesting he may appeal.
“My legal team is trying to explain the ruling to me, but even they are having difficulty explaining to me how my actions in exposing the fraud caused it to not be fraud,” he said.
But it’s always been a long shot because distasteful campaign tactics are not necessarily illegal campaign tactics.
Madigan has long made it a practice of running phony candidates in his re-election bids to his Democratic House seat in Chicago. He’s tapped supporters to run in general elections, posing as Republicans but not campaigning.
In the 2016 primary, his aides found two Madigan supporters with Hispanic-sounding names to run against him and Gonzales, theoretically splitting the anti-Madigan vote and guaranteeing his re-nomination and re-election.
He won a substantial majority, collecting 65 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Gonzales, 5.8 percent for Rodriguez and 2 percent for Barboza. Relying on Madigan’s majority, Kennelly said voters got who they wanted and that he’s not going to interfere with the results.
Members of Madigan’s political team recruited the two phony candidates, collected the required petition signatures and, after Gonzales filed to challenge Madigan, immediately filed paperwork for the two fake candidates.
In his deposition, one in which Madigan repeatedly cited a failing memory to avoid answering question, Madigan denied “any involvement in efforts to recruit Barboza or Rodriguez to run in the primary.”
Kennelly didn’t buy the denial, citing ample evidence that “the defendants solicited Barboza and Rodriguez to run and helped circulate their nominating petitions in an effort to confuse or otherwise dilute Gonzales’ support among Hispanic voters and perhaps others.”
But he noted that the law requires “wariness about involving federal courts in state election disputes,” establishing legal hurdles that were not all present in this case.
With this civil case now in its death throes, Madigan’s only other legal problem is a pending federal corruption investigation focused on his political operation and associates. News reports indicate that authorities are trying to determine if Madigan unlawfully used his authority to get friends and associates jobs, including a lobbying post with Commonwealth Edison.