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Kadner: The Rollo Tomasi of Illinois politics

Michael J. Madigan  speaker Illinois House Representatives Chairman Democratic Party Illinois gave keynote address 5th Annual Elmhurst College Governmental

Michael J. Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, and Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois gave the keynote address at the 5th Annual Elmhurst College Governmental Forum. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: May 19, 2013 7:41AM



In Southland political circles, Michael Madigan has become Rollo Tomasi.

In the movie “L.A. Confidential,” a police officer created a fictional character, Rollo Tomasi, to personify all the bad guys who think “they can get away with it.”

House Speaker Madigan (D-Chicago), who’s also the state Democratic Party chairman, has come to serve the same purpose it seems for politicians and many taxpayers in the suburbs.

When a bizarre letter surfaced in Frankfort Township last week threatening to “out” publicly any registered Democrat who failed to vote, local Republicans said Madigan had to be behind it.

No proof existed. But it just had to be Madigan because who else would be capable of such a sinister, inexplicable political tactic?

The fact that the Democratic voters who got the letter in the mail were angered by the threat to expose them didn’t discourage folks from pointing the finger at Madigan.

In Worth Township, when a bipartisan group of incumbents, led by a Republican, were ousted from office by local Democrats, how did the challengers pull off the upset? Rollo Tomasi.

Campaign contributions came in from across the state, the incumbents charged, and one of Madigan’s right-hand men was running for township highway commissioner.

Madigan has carefully cultivated an image of an inscrutable political leader. Even those who have worked with him in Springfield for decades often say they don’t know what he’s thinking.

“The rest of us are playing checkers, and he’s playing 3-D chess,” is a quote I’ve heard several times from current and former legislators.

Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, usually laughs derisively when I call about allegations of Madigan engaging in political intrigue such as the examples described above.

“Mike Madigan is chairman of the state Democratic Party and speaker of the Illinois House,” Brown says. “He does not get involved in local politics.”

The word “local” is usually emphasized as if it were a piece of rotten potato that had fouled Brown’s mouth. Madigan wouldn’t stoop that low is the impression Brown wants to give a reporter.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Madigan cares about state legislative races. He wants Democrats in control of the House and wants their votes to keep him in the speaker’s chair. Beyond that ...

I got the Brown Bronx cheer last week when I called to ask if Madigan had designs on controlling all the township governments in South Cook County.

I noted that in recent years Cook County Democrats had taken control of all but one township in the Southland.

Really? Who knew? Ain’t that a surprise? As for Madigan having a hand in any of that or formulating a strategy, why would he bother?

Voters know they are always better off when Democrats are in control of government, Brown said.

I can convince myself that Madigan has decided that township governments are a reservoir of patronage jobs, tax money and contracts to be doled out to campaign contributors.

But beyond that theory, I have nothing else.

“Your theory is wrong,” said one Democratic bit player who claims to know a little about Madigan and the Southland. “Madigan couldn’t care less about the townships. He doesn’t think like that.”

And that might be true. It’s also the sort of thing the Oz-like Madigan might want people to believe while he was operating behind the scenes to control local government.

If that’s all a figment of a columnist’s active imagination, if members of the Illinois Republican Party are seeing Madigan’s shadow lurking in every alley, well isn’t that just the perfect image for a fellow who wants people to believe he’s always three or four moves ahead of them?

A few years back, I visited an Oak Lawn emergency operations center for some sort of celebration of a grant it had received. As people socialized before the official ceremony, I saw Madigan in the room. He usually doesn’t show up for such events.

I walked over to Oak Lawn Mayor Dave Heilmann, standing a good distance from Madigan, and asked what Madigan was doing there.

“I don’t know,” Heilmann said with a wry smile, “Why don’t you ask Bob Streit?”

Streit, a village trustee, was standing near a food buffet with Madigan beside him, and they seemed to be enjoying each other’s company.

Across the room, I saw Jerry Hurckes, an Oak Lawn trustee at the time, longtime 23rd Ward precinct captain and now chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd). What’s Madigan doing here?

“I don’t know,” Hurckes said. “Ask Bob Streit.”

Streit is a Republican, by the way. I wandered over to Madigan and Streit and asked what was going on.

Madigan said something about being honored to have been invited to the local celebration. Streit smiled and thanked Madigan for his help.

They reminded me of high school kids who had gotten away with a prank.

The Chicago Tribune later claimed that Oak Lawn had agreed to hire a Madigan-connected attorney after $40 million in low-cost state funding was freed to help Oak Lawn with a new water project.

Rollo Tomasi? Or maybe you prefer the infamous and sinister Keyser Soze from the movie “The Usual Suspects”?

Certainly, whenever there’s political upheaval, if there’s even a hint of the unexplained regarding some political occurrence, the usual suspects get rounded up by newspaper reporters and all mutter the same name.

Mike Madigan.



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