October 16, 2002


Amid the rhetorical barrage of platitudes, mischaracterizations, vilifications, obfuscations, and outright falsifications emanating from the two contenders to succeed Jim Ryan as Illinois attorney general, this much is clear:

Lisa Madigan is a Democrat, and that alone might be enough to win in 2002, which looks like a sterling Democratic year. But Madigan is also the daughter of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, and that’s both her greatest advantage, since her dad is putting enormous pressure on Democratic committeemen and county chairmen to deliver for his daughter, and her greatest impediment, since voters are not only dubious about putting too much power in one family, but also are skeptical that daughter would prosecute father (or father’s Democratic legislators) in the event of wrongdoing.

That said, there is no question that Lisa Madigan is a caring, sensitive person. There’s also no question that she utterly lacks trial and courtroom experience, having graduated from law school only six years ago. She asserts that the primary qualification for being attorney general is “leadership,” and that she would be the “peoples’ lawyer,” and would  “protect the quality of life” of Illinoisans by focusing on such issues as consumerism, charitable fraud, senior fraud, and environmental protection. In fact, Ryan’s major accomplishment during his last term was suing and winning a $9.1 billion settlement from the tobacco industry.

Joe Birkett is a Republican, and that is a veritable ball-and-chain this year. Birkett is likely to get the most votes of any Republican running statewide (with the possible exception of state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka), but that doesn’t matter if the licenses-for-bribes scandal causes 300,000-plus voters to vote Democratic in protest. Birkett’s greatest advantage is that he is the DuPage County State’s Attorney, and that has 21 years of  trial experience in prosecuting both civil and criminal defendants. He wants to make the AG’s job into a crime-busting agency, with a heavy focus on official corruption, public aid fraud, and child support collection. Democrats lambast Jim Ryan for not using his powers to investigate George Ryan, and instead deferring to the U.S. Attorney. But the attorney general’s office does have the authority to investigate “corruption” in state government, and Birkett pledges to use it – especially if it means investigating the Illinois House, which is currently being probed by the U.S. Attorney for possible staff salary irregularities.

However, the attorney general’s office doesn’t prosecute street crime or violence, although the Attorney General heads the Statewide Grand Jury, which indicts drug dealers and gun runners whose operations cross county lines. So do Birkett’s years of crime-busting experience really matter? Birkett’s greatest disadvantage is his role in the caseof Rolando Cruz, convicted of a 1983 murder and sentenced to death; that conviction was overturned twice, and Cruz was retried twice. Madigan charges that Birkett was involved in the second re-trial case. Madigan’s argument is that Birkett’s prosecutorial zeal evolved into an arrogance which makes him unfit to be attorney general. Birkett is also opposed to abortion except in case of rape and incest, while Madigan is pro-choice. But that’s not a volcanic issue in the contest.

That said, in terms of legal expertise and experience, there is no question that Birkett is the better-qualified candidate. He derides Madigan’s notion of the office, claiming it is not intended to be a “social service agency.” But maybe Illinoisans want a warm-and-fuzzy, not a cold-and-tough, attorney general.

 Another advantage: According to the Birkett campaign, his election would provide a necessary “check-and-balance” on state government, which is likely to be totally dominated by the Democrats, who will control the Illinois House, Illinois Senate, governorship, and most statewide offices. But voters  don’t support that notion: Of the 13 statewide elections in the past 50 years (1952 through 1998), a Republican has won the AG’s office eight times; seven times a Republican was elected both governor and attorney general, and two times a Democrat won both posts. Only once (1972) did a Democrat win the governorship while a Republican won AG; and only three times was it the reverse (1982, 1986 and 1990).

As indicated in the adjoining vote chart, there is no direct correlation between the vote for attorney general and the vote for governor. It is not identical. In the eight elections since 1972, the AG nominee ran ahead of his party’s gubernatorial nominee in six. Only in 1976 and 1994, when Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar, respectively, swept to victories of 1,390,137 and 914,468 votes, respectively, did their party’s AG candidate run behind.

What is obvious is that, when the attorney general’s spot is open – meaning no elected incumbent is seeking re-election, which occurred in 1982, 1990, and 1994 – and there is a general swing toward one party for governor, the AG’s race is affected. In 1994, for example, the big-spending Democrat Al Hofeld lost to Jim Ryan by 280,681 votes, while Edgar was winning by 914,468 – a swing of over 600,000 votes; in 1982, Democrat Neil Hartigan won for AG by 544,689 votes, while Adlai Stevenson lost for governor by 5,074 – a swing of over 500,000 votes. In 1990, when there was no discernable swing, Edgar won by 83,909, and Democrat Roland Burris by 95,214.

The 2002 election is looking more like 1994 than 1990 or 1982. Democrat Rod Blagojevich is likely to trounce Jim Ryan for governor by anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 votes. The higher above 500,000 Blagojevich goes, the more likely it is that Madigan will squeak in.

Lisa Madigan’s one big edge over Birkett is the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote effort, which the Republicans cannot and will not counteract. Back in 1982, under the leadership of then-county chairman Ed Vrdolyak, Democrats in Cook County ran a massive “Punch 10” straight-ticket drive, which paid off handsomely: Stevenson and Hartigan won Cook County by, respectively, 311,522 and 564,656 votes. In 1990, Hartigan, running for governor, won Cook by just 110,881 votes, in part because black voters boycotted him. In 2000, Al Gore carried Cook by 746,005 votes, and won Illinois by 569,605 in a turnout of  4.9 million.

Unlike Hartigan, no Democratic constituency is mad at either Blagojevich or Madigan. And local Democratic committeemen (and their precinct captains) are pushing hard for both Blagojevich and Madigan – although they’re pushing Blagojevich harder. Blagojevich’s own precinct operation, run by his father-in-law, Alderman Dick Mell (33rd), has troops throughout the county, and is not pushing Madigan. Mike Madigan’s workers, especially on the Southwest Side, are focusing exclusively on his daughter.

There is no doubt that Blagojevich would prefer not to have Lisa Madigan as attorney general, as she would be a future political rival, and her win would augment Mike Madigan’s already gargantuan power.

Mayor Rich Daley put enormous pressure on party functionaries to deliver big for Gore in 2000, since Bill Daley was his campaign manager – and they did. Gore won Chicago by 604,929 votes. Blagojevich is no Al Gore, but he could win by almost that much. Daley is not pushing that hard for Blagojevich, but there is no doubt that both Blagojevich and Madigan will win the city: the former by upwards of 500,000 votes, Madigan by more than 400,000. Both will win the Cook County suburbs, although Madigan by a narrower margin.

My prediction: Madigan will win in her Cook County base by around 500,000 votes. Could she possibly lose statewide?  Absolutely. Then-U.S. Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, in 1998, won Cook County by 394,161 votes, got buried Downstate and in the collar counties, and lost to Peter Fitzgerald by 98,545 votes.

Madigan is not nearly as polarizing a figure as was Moseley-Braun, and the racial factor is absent; but Madigan is a flawed candidate with only rudimentary credentials for the job. She is not selling well Downstate. But she will win in Cook County by 510,000, and Birkett will not run as well Downstate as Fitzgerald. Madigan will win statewide by 45,000 votes – amassing about 500,000 votes less than Blagojevich. And that will usher in a new era of social service at the attorney general’s office.