The debacle of Democrats nominating pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen for lieutenant governor -- a candidate so politically toxic he could bring down the Democratic ticket in November -- highlights the awful job House Speaker Michael J. Madigan is doing as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Unlike every other state party chairman in the nation, Madigan refuses to run a viable statewide political organization.
With Democrats now facing uphill battles to elect Gov. Quinn and Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias, they head into the nine-month general election campaign without a real, working statewide party. The Illinois Republican Party has a very engaging, energized chairman, Pat Brady. Illinois Democrats have Madigan, who shows little interest in doing the job of state party chairman, including mapping strategy to win in November.
Madigan has used the position mainly to re-elect his state House members and to help daughter Lisa Madigan when she first ran for attorney general. He is up for re-election as Democratic Party of Illinois chairman in April.
Every Democratic activist I've been talking to the last few days says it is time for Madigan to step up or step out.
I'm told that Cohen is contemplating dropping out but needs some time and a face-saving way to quit the ticket, where by Illinois law he is Quinn's automatic running mate. A political neophyte, Cohen did not realize, I'm told, that when his entire background came out -- his anabolic steroid abuse and allegations of being a deadbeat dad, attempting to force his then-wife to have sex and holding a knife to the throat of his live-in girlfriend, a prostitute -- he would be unelectable in November.
Now, there is a lot of blame to go around for Cohen -- with his scandalized background -- winning Tuesday's six-way Democratic lieutenant governor primary. Except for my colleague, Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, the stretched-thin Chicago media never got more stories in the papers about Cohen's flaws and his potential -- by spending his own millions of dollars -- for winning the primary.
But blaming the press does not excuse Madigan. Most party chairmen would have started caring about the viability of the top of the statewide Democratic ticket -- no matter if Quinn or Comptroller Dan Hynes were to be the eventual nominee -- once Cohen started pouring huge sums of his own money into his race. Cohen loaned his campaign $300,000 on Dec. 14, $200,000 on Dec. 28, $40,000 on Jan. 4, $300,000 on Jan. 11, $200,000 on Jan. 16, $200,000 on Jan. 25 and $55,098 on Jan. 29. Cohen's ads -- with, ironically, a very effective jobs message -- were all over television, while his poorly funded rivals were invisible.
The Democratic Party of Illinois did not make an endorsement in the lieutenant governor race. Madigan gave his personal endorsement to state Rep. Arthur Turner (Chicago). But Madigan did not do much to assist Turner, who had only $50,000 to spend on ads. Two of Turner's spots were probably too subtle anyway; they ended with a warning about how a "millionaire pawnbroker [is] trying to buy this election."
The Cohen episode demonstrates that Illinois Democrats could use a real state party leader. Even if Madigan did not want the party to endorse anyone, usually a chairman would at least try to make sure the least-electable contender does not get the nomination.
"In any other state, campaigns or interested parties would have gone to the state party chair and aired their concerns about Scott Lee Cohen's candidacy," said Kitty Kurth, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant. "The state party chair could have asked Cohen to step down for the good of the party. If Cohen said no, then the party chair could have stood up in the press and said to voters, 'Vote for any Democrat, but not this one.' "
Illinois Democrats have not had an activist party chairman since Gary LaPaille, who served between 1990 and 1998. During LaPaille's tenure, he was a statewide voice for Democrats on a state and national level, and the state party was involved in coordinated campaigns, voter registration drives and had an office in Chicago accessible to the public.
That has not been done under Madigan, as other Democratic entities have stepped into the void. Sen. Dick Durbin has played a major role in statewide Democratic organizing for years; so have the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen organization, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Organizing for America, the former Obama political organization now run out of the Democratic National Committee.
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said criticisms of Madigan for being hands-off were "ironic" since Madigan is sometimes accused of being "heavy-handed." I asked Brown going forward what Madigan's role would be in dealing with the Cohen situation. On Thursday, Madigan agreed with Quinn that Cohen should step aside. Brown said he did not know if "Chairman Madigan" would be doing more than that.