Revenge of the speaker

Madigan fights ‘total war’ vs. former friend

There’s nothing quite like the spectacle of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan when he’s out to get somebody.

Just ask state Rep. Skip Saviano, R-Elmwood Park.

The two men used to be allies, even friends. Saviano supported Madigan’s daughter when Lisa ran for state attorney general. But then Lisa turned against Saviano’s political mentor, the late Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens, blocking his dream of building a local casino because, she claimed, he was tied to the mob. Saviano vowed revenge.

Even so, things eventually died down. Saviano kept the powerful committee chairmanship given to him by Madigan – one of only two Republicans bestowed with that privilege in the Illinois House, the other being one of Skip’s best friends.

But when Madigan cranked up his total war against then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he eventually came to believe that Saviano, an old Blagojevich pal, had sided with the governor against him.

That was the last straw.

Before long, Saviano had lost his chairmanship. Then the Republican Saviano was given a new House district in the remap that was solidly Democratic. And then Madigan moved Heaven and Earth to find an opponent for the locally popular Saviano, finally convincing an almost totally unknown local Republican to switch parties and challenge the incumbent.

Madigan dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign, forcing Saviano to work harder on his re-election than he ever has.

Saviano is a clever tactician himself, however. When Madigan lieutenant state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, crashed and disrupted a Latino candidates’ forum in Saviano’s district, Saviano finally got the Chicago media to pay some attention to his battle. Sen. Sandoval stood on a chair and then sat on the floor, all the while shouting that Latinos should never vote Republican. Sandoval was eventually escorted out of the church building by local police and, instead of apologizing the next day, called Saviano a racist. The Chicago media generally disdains covering local state legislative races, but that story was just too good to pass up.

Saviano ginned up the attention further by claiming that Sandoval’s actions had prompted the state’s lone Latino congressman, Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat, to endorse the Republican Saviano. Never mind that Saviano had already ordered that the Gutierrez endorsement direct mail pieces be printed before Sen. Sandoval crashed the forum. But, hey, it made for a good story.

Not to be outdone, Madigan ordered up the printing of a flier featuring photos of his candidate, Kathleen Willis, and Congressman Gutierrez. “Luis Gutierrez and Kathleen Willis, Fighting for our families and our concerns!” the text underneath the photo read.

But the wildest move of the entire campaign came when a political action committee with obvious ties to Madigan popped up out of nowhere and sent direct mailers to Republicans blasting Saviano for being Speaker Madigan’s puppet.

“A vote for Skip Saviano is a vote for Mike Madigan!” blared one of the PAC’s mailers. The piece informed voters that Madigan had appointed Saviano to a committee chairmanship, claimed Saviano had contributed money to Madigan’s campaign committee and “voted 6 times to make Madigan Speaker of the House!”

“Democrat Speaker Mike Madigan calls the shots for Skip Saviano,” screamed the other mailer, which featured a photo of the two men with their arms around each other.

One of the PAC’s top contributors gave $5,000 to the new group on Oct. 19 – less than 2 weeks after the company contributed $10,000 to Speaker Madigan. Another company gave three contributions to Madigan’s committees totaling more than $6,000 just 10 days before it gave the new PAC $1,500.

I’ve seen some crazy stuff in my day, but this one pretty much took the cake.

Madigan’s people have insisted for years that Republican attempts to sully his name have not worked. But then they got behind what appeared to be a pro-Madigan group that attacked Madigan in order to help defeat a Republican state representative.

To put it another way, the Democrats took the Republican Party’s ubiquitous “Fire Madigan” mantra and turned it against a Republican legislator.

This was either a brilliant payback to the GOP or a foolish confirmation that Madigan’s name truly is toxic.

Heck, it could turn out to be both.

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