Democrats Cross the Illinois Speaker at Their Peril Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 14 October 2003 18:00
A fascinating month-long political standoff might finally be coming to a close in Kankakee County. The trouble started when Governor Rod Blagojevich promised state Representative Phil Novak (D-Bradley) a seat on the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Representative Novak, who has specialized in environmental and utility issues during a House career that has spanned three decades, then chose Lisa Dugan as his successor.

The House Democrats strongly approved of Dugan, the president of the Bradley Chamber of Commerce. Dugan, they say, fits the district’s “profile,” and they believe she will help them hold on to what is essentially a 50-50 Democrat-Republican district next year.

For whatever reason, Novak did not consult Kankakee County Democratic Party Chair Gary Ciaccio about his decision until several days later. Novak and Ciaccio have been allies for years, and Novak backed Ciaccio against two successive challenges to his party leadership post.

Ciaccio reportedly took the protocol breach as a serious personal snub, and he told Represenative Novak and House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office that if Novak resigned to take the Pollution Control Board job, he would appoint himself to Novak’s seat. Ciaccio has more than enough of the district’s weighted vote to make the appointment decision on his own, and his threat set off some major alarm bells.

For three solid weeks, Ciaccio refused to budge, even when the speaker’s office threatened to run Dugan against him in the spring primary next year if he followed through on his self-appointment vow. A divisive primary could be disastrous for the House Democrats. The district is so evenly divided that the Republicans, already very hopeful about picking up the seat, would have a much better shot at winning if the local Dems engaged in a public family feud.

The House Democrats obviously don’t want a repeat of anything like the Glenn Bradford fiasco. Bradford, a wealthy Metro East trial lawyer, muscled himself through the 1996 spring primary after state Representative Jay Hoffman left to run for Congress. Madigan opposed Bradford’s candidacy from the beginning but lost out to the local Democratic Party, which had been bankrolled by Bradford for years.

Bradford went on to barely win a bitterly contested fall election for an open House seat, and the Speaker’s office was worried that he could lose the seat in the all-important 1998 campaign. The House Democrats had lost the majority in 1994 and gained it back in 1996 with the slimmest of margins. A Bradford loss could have handed control back to the Republicans. In the end, the House Dems “persuaded” Bradford to resign (in one of the most intense behind-the-scenes efforts imaginable), and Hoffman, who lost his congressional race, was appointed to his old seat and easily won re-election.

What people like Bradford and Ciaccio often don’t understand until it’s too late is that legislative leaders are very much like mafia dons – without the guns. They won’t plop your severed head into a bowling-ball bag and toss it into the Chicago River, à la Tony Soprano, but they will do everything within their power to destroy you if you get in their way, particularly when it comes to intra-party affairs. As Senate President Emil Jones is fond of saying, “It ain’t personal; it’s just business.”

Glenn Bradford was one of the top Metro East trial lawyers before he was elected to the House, which is saying something, considering that the area is a tort attorney’s dream come true. Back in 1994, he was flying gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch around the state in his firm’s private jet. But, when last heard from, he was begging for a $20,000 contract from the local state’s attorney.

And Glenn Bradford is just one political corpse on a very large, rotting pile outside Michael Madigan’s Statehouse door.

Ciaccio has everything to lose in this, and, as of this writing, his friends say he is finally coming around to reality. He is the county party chairperson mainly because Novak wanted him there. But crossing Novak and Madigan would probably end that stint. He is reportedly bucking for a management job at Shapiro Mental Developmental Center, but he’d be lucky to even have a paycheck after the smoke cleared. And he sits on AFSCME’s executive council at the Kankakee state facility, a position that would also be imperiled because his local union president is known to be a close Novak ally and sources say she is backing Dugan for the House seat.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).