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Madigan challenger Gonzales faces uphill climb to unseat speaker

Jason Gonzales, who is challenging House Speaker Michael Madigan in the 2016 Democratic primary, fundraises in his Southwest Side office, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

For a guy who has spent the past four decades winning elections with landslide margins, Michael Madigan hasn’t gotten great publicity lately.

During a reign as speaker of the state House that has spanned most of the past 40 years, Madigan’s name has become synonymous with Chicago’s Machine politics. And in recent months, Gov. Bruce Rauner has seldom passed up an opportunity to blame Madigan for the state’s $5 billion deficit and a budget stalemate that threatens everything from college scholarships to drug treatment programs.

The headwinds Madigan faces going into the March 15 primary seem powerful enough to keep him from adding to his 35 years as speaker — at least that’s what challenger Jason Gonzales thinks.

“The Democratic Party needs to be rebuilt,” Gonzales said during a recent interview at his Southwest Side campaign office. “It’s beholden to one man who has wielded extraordinary, I would say, offensive amounts of power. [Madigan] has more power than anybody should have in a democracy.”

A Madigan spokesman did not respond to multiple calls from the Chicago Sun-Times seeking an interview with the speaker.

Madigan, 73, indeed exerts outsize influence on everything from which bills ever reach a vote in the House to who gets to be judge in Cook County — power he has consolidated since winning his first House race in 1970. And Gonzales insists his opponent is not above more petty uses of power: Gonzales said he and Madigan were the only candidates on the ballot when Gonzales submitted his paperwork just minutes ahead of the filing deadline — until a Madigan operative spotted Gonzales and immediately pulled out petitions in the names of Grasiela Rodriguez and Joe Barbosa.

The state Board of Elections has no record that either Barbosa or Rodriguez has raised or spent any money on their campaign. Neither returned calls from the Sun-Times.

Gonzales said having a pair of Latino-named, no-show candidates on the ballot was the first in a string of dirty tricks he has faced since starting his campaign against Madigan.

Last week, he said he learned that there is no street parking along the road to success, when no-parking signs appeared on lampposts along South Pulaski Road on the block where his campaign office is located. The signs said street parking would not be allowed until March 16 — the day after the primary — but after reporters made calls to various city offices, the signs came down the next day.

Gonzales says the no parking fliers actually are signs Madigan is taking him seriously. Gonzales has degrees from Duke University, MIT and Harvard, and he has raised more than $100,000 for his campaign — more than double what Madigan’s opponent brought in during the speaker’s last contested primary in 2012. Madigan — through his roles as head of the 13th Ward, Democratic Majority, the state Democratic Party and his own campaign fund — controls about $10 million.

<small><strong> President Barack Obama is greeted by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan before the president addresses the Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. | AP Photo</strong></small>
President Barack Obama is greeted by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan before the president addresses the Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016, at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. | AP Photo

While Gonzales is a recent transplant to the 22nd District — he grew up in Carpentersville and moved into the area only 18 months ago — he points out that he speaks Spanish in a district that is more than 70 percent Latino, and his grandparents lived in an adjacent district.

As he has walked the district, Gonzales said, he has heard from residents who are unhappy with the longtime speaker’s iron grip on the neighborhood.

“People tell me ‘Mike Madigan hasn’t knocked on my door in 25 years,’ ” Gonzales said.

Madigan has filled mailboxes across the district with fliers that point out that nearly all of Gonzales’ donors have ties to Republican causes. At least four mailers and a television ad have focused on the fact that before Gonzales was a student at some of the nation’s top schools, he had multiple felony convictions.

Gov. Pat Quinn last year pardoned Gonzales, now 42, for five convictions for forgery and theft of a credit card, crimes he committed when he was between the ages of 18 and 20, according to records from the state Prisoner Review Board. Gonzales casts the 20-year-old convictions as part of an inspirational story.

At 16, Gonzales dropped out of high school and had fallen in with a bad crowd. At 20, he decided to turn his life around and returned to school and wound up graduating with honors at 21 before heading to Michigan State, transferring to Duke and earning master’s degrees at MIT and Harvard.

Now a business consultant, Gonzales said he long had wanted to pursue a career in public service.

The speaker has been locked in a battle with Rauner for more than a year, resisting the governor’s demand that the Democrat-controlled Legislature pass his “Turnaround Agenda,” a package of reforms that are fiercely opposed by labor unions.

After Rauner delivered his second budget address earlier this month, Madigan said to the governor, “thanks for the candidate,” a reference to Gonzales, according to Rich Miller of Capitol Fax.

<small><strong> Jason Gonzales, who is challenging House Speaker Michael Madigan in the 2016 Democratic primary, campaigns and meets with potential voters at Super Mall, 5220 S. Pulaski Road on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times</strong></s
Jason Gonzales, who is challenging House Speaker Michael Madigan in the 2016 Democratic primary, campaigns and meets with potential voters at Super Mall, 5220 S. Pulaski Road on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Gonzales, the son of a union electrician, said he would not do anything to weaken unions and dislikes Rauner’s anti-union stances. Gonzales said he has gotten money from Republican donors and independent Democrats because he is in favor of term limits and redrawing legislative district boundaries, not because he backs the governor.

Gonzales faces long odds of unseating Madigan, who controls millions in campaign funds for Democratic candidates and is thought to control an unknown number of patronage jobs, said Connie Mixon, an Elmhurst College political science professor who lives in Beverly.

Mixon lauds Gonzales for running a credible campaign, with a viable strategy to turn out Latino and younger voters in a year when Madigan might be feeling the heat of a particularly anti-establishment mood in the electorate. But some of that support might have been diluted when Madigan also notched a key endorsement from County Board member Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a favorite of the city’s Latino and reform-minded voters, Mixon said.

Garcia’s support shows that Madigan’s feud with Rauner might actually help the incumbent in a district heavy with city and state workers, Mixon said.

“People might not like Madigan, but at this point they might feel that no one else is strong enough to stand up to Rauner,” Mixon said.

“If Gonzales sticks around, he might be building a base for something in the future, but I don’t think it will be enough this time,” she said. “But Madigan has to retire someday.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the town in which Gonzales grew up.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan speaks to the City Club of Chicago at the University Club of Chicago in December 2015. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan speaks to the City Club of Chicago at the University Club of Chicago in December 2015. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times