As with other powerful Democratic Machine politicians before him, House Speaker Mike Madigan’s ward organization is the ultimate source of his strength — but it’s also his Achilles’ heel.
That was never more evident than this week after Alaina Hampton, a young political worker nurtured on the inside of Madigan’s 13th Ward operation and trained in its self-protective ways, went public with allegations of sexual harassment against one of his top political lieutenants.
This was not someone sympathetic to “Gov. Rauner’s radical right agenda,” which is how Madigan on Tuesday tried to characterize demands by Democratic opponents that he step down as speaker or state party chairman in light of his handling of the matter.
This was a young woman who well understood she was part of a political organization built on patronage and loyalty and never putting its business in the street.
Hampton knew she could risk losing everything by making waves, but reluctantly did so anyway like other trailblazers of the #MeToo movement.
It’s that combination that makes this scandal as dangerous to Madigan politically as any that have gone before it. Rather than facing down another Republican governor or a Democratic insurgent, he now finds himself in danger of swimming against a political movement more powerful than himself.
If more women in Madigan’s wide domain come forward with claims of mishandled sexual harassment claims — and Hampton asserted she knows of female workers in Springfield with similar stories of complaints swept under the rug— then this has a chance of snowballing.
That would be true even if this wasn’t an election year in which Madigan’s tenure has emerged again as a major campaign issue under attack not only by Rauner but also by Democratic candidates for governor Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss.
If it stays confined to this one case, then Madigan may be able to ride it out, which obviously will be his instinct — the same instinct that has made him the nation’s longest-serving legislative leader.
But it will be hard to overcome the impression created here that while Madigan’s political organization has created opportunities for women in politics it was ultimately more committed to protecting the old boys’ network at its core.
In an appearance before reporters Tuesday, Hampton made a convincing case that she had always looked up to Madigan as she learned to work campaigns on his behalf — and even more so the speaker’s right-hand political operative in Chicago, Ald. Marty Quinn — until she believed she had been betrayed.
Hampton said she regarded Quinn as her mentor, and as such, she suggested his betrayal was greater for his failure to punish his brother Kevin Quinn, her supervisor, for harassing her via inappropriate text messages.
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But she made clear she also believed Madigan had taken too long to act on her concerns after she sent a letter to his home in November.
In the first public acknowledgement of the scandal, Madigan announced Monday that he had cut ties to Kevin Quinn because of his conduct, saying he was “no longer an employee of any of my political committees” and wouldn’t be returning to his state job in Madigan’s office.
Hampton said she believed the announcement was a pre-emptive move by Madigan to get in front of her filing of an Equal Opportunity Commission complaint and a related interview she gave over the weekend to a Chicago Tribune reporter.
Heather Wier Vaught, Madigan’s lawyer, said she was unaware Hampton had gone to the news media and that Madigan decided to make a public statement because people were asking questions after Quinn left his job last week.
In his Monday statement, Madigan called Hampton a “courageous woman.” At a news conference in Springfield on Tuesday, Madigan had little to say, deferring questions to Vaught.
Hampton wouldn’t comment on whether she thought Madigan should resign. But her adviser, Lorna Brett, former President of Chicago NOW, said Madigan needs to step down.
Ominously for Madigan, Brett said she has been working most recently with Harvey Weinstein’s accusers.