Right up front, let’s just stipulate that the recent appointment of state Representaive Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) as the Democratic Party of Illinois’ interim executive director will not usher in an immediate sea-change.
First, this is a temporary, part-time gig. Representative Mitchell told me he has no interest in staying on after the election and will continue with his part-time law schooling through the fall campaign.
Second, House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is also the state party’s chairman, has already installed Mary Morrissey as the state party’s Chief Operating Officer. Among other things, Morrissey ran Madigan’s Chicago political operation before moving over to Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s campaign and government staffs. She is smart, capable, knows just about everybody in the business, and is a nuts-and-bolts person who Mitchell said will handle the day-to-day functioning of the party. She’ll likely keep an eye on Mitchell for Madigan.
Third, Madigan promoted Emily Wurth, the party’s former operations manager, to Chief Financial Officer. Wurth is a highly capable former House Issues (campaign) staffer who moved up to DPI five years ago. She’ll be one more set of eyes on Mitchell.
Fourth, Madigan has installed his most trusted attorney, Mike Kasper, as treasurer of the state party.
And finally, as the duly elected state party chairman, Madigan can likely veto anything Mitchell wants to do.
All that having been said, this Mitchell appointment is an important move by the all-female committee tasked with naming Tim Mapes’ replacement. Mapes had to resign as Madigan’s chief of staff and state party executive director after being accused of sexual harassment.
Think of this move as a foot in the door for the next generation.
For the first time, the state party will have a young African-American standing right out front. A calcified, overly white, constantly under fire and very unpopular state party leadership has simply become a drag on every Democrat. Mitchell is a normally pleasant fellow, but he’s an amateur boxer who isn’t afraid to verbally punch you hard in the nose. So an attack on Democrats by the Republicans can be met with a quick and stinging response from its new and fresh public face. Even though Mitchell wasn’t Madigan’s choice, the House Speaker is smart enough to know this can be an advantage he’s never had before.
An early supporter of JB Pritzker, Mitchell has unofficially advised the campaign for months. He reportedly helped the candidate deal with the uproar after the Tribune published a story about those now-infamous FBI surveillance tapes on which Pritzker said some highly unkind things about various African-American politicians to Rod Blagojevich in an effort to convince the governor to appoint Jesse White to the U.S. Senate. The Pritzker folks have always been impressed by Mitchell and that’s a big reason why they actively engineered his appointment. Madigan simply could not stand in the way of his party’s nominee, who, as of this writing, has poured $5.7 million into Democratic coffers since late May with more to come. Mitchell is basically Pritzker’s guy at DPI.
Representative Mitchell is also a close political ally and personal friend of Representative Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago), who has fought several public and private battles with Speaker Madigan over the past several months on #MeToo issues. And according to numerous sources, Mitchell has privately advised Alaina Hampton, who is suing Madigan’s political operation after making her own sexual harassment allegations. Both women heartily endorsed Mitchell’s ascension. That might give Madigan some heartburn, but the party most definitely needs a bridge to the other side after the recent debacles. Mitchell has a lot of allies in the state’s #MeToo movement, and all seemed quite pleased last week.
Mitchell hasn’t spoken publicly against Madigan. That could be seen as a sign of weakness or even obsequiousness by outsiders, but others know better. Attack Madigan and his members and allies will always rush to his defense. Blagojevich found that out the hard way, so did Pat Quinn, and, of course, so did Bruce Rauner. Mitchell, on the other hand, is one of the smoothest guys I know and he’s a person of his word, which are big reasons why he’s been able to work with so many different Statehouse types, including Madigan.
The Mitchell appointment isn’t the beginning of the end for Madigan by any means. The big guy holds too many cards. It might, however, be the end of the beginning. After endless months of wrenching turmoil, the Pritzker campaign is finally exerting its will on the party chairman. Expect that to continue if Pritzker is elected this November.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.