SPRINGFIELD—Mike Madigan may be the chairman of the state’s Democratic party, but his presence was at most minimal on Thursday at annual Democrat Day events at the Illinois State Fair.
Perhaps his ears were ringing from the countless criticisms leveled at him a day earlier as Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state’s Republicans spoke of their dreams to oust him.
But the Democratic chairman and longest serving statehouse speaker in the U.S. spoke briefly to begin the annual Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association brunch — and he avoided a big name: Democrat J.B. Pritzker.
That’s because the Blame Madigan game is still going strong for Republicans. Outside the brunch at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield, the Rauner campaign flew a banner that read “Pritzker ♥ Madigan.”
The embattled speaker ducked out of a breakfast pep rally before all the speeches were finished. And Democratic officials and candidates found themselves fielding reporters’ questions about whether Madigan will be a political liability in November. The party’s executive director insisted the election should not be about personalities, and the nominee for attorney general refused to even answer the question.
“My name is Kwame Raoul,” he said. “Next question.”
But Democrats are energized this year by Pritzker, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist who has reached into his deep pockets for more than a $100 million to try to oust Rauner. He’s also pushed “Blue Wave Illinois” in a fundraising and get-out-the-vote effort to boost Democrats throughout the state.
Before he bolted from the breakfast, Madigan told Democrats they must stick together.
“We’ve come here today as Democrats. We come here today in a sense to kick off the general election for November,” Madigan said to applause. “If we keep up the good work, it will be a very successful campaign.”
Madigan focused his ire on the governor, asking the thousands of Democrats how they felt about Rauner holding the state’s budget making process “hostage” to try to make the state right-to-work, to reduce workers’ compensation benefits and repeal collective bargaining.
“Rauner held hostage the budget in order to provide that public sector collective bargaining would be repealed. How do you feel about that?” Madigan asked to boos.
“We don’t like that,” a man in the crowd shouted.
Madigan smiled and gave him a thumbs up, while also vowing that state Democrats will stay united through November.
“There’s a basic rule in Illinois politics. The political party that remains united wins the election. It’s our job, our responsibility to stay together,” Madigan said. “Look around the room. We are different but we are Democrats. And if we stay together, we will win the general election. Every Democrat is going to be elected.”
Pritzker vowed to turn red counties blue. And the millions he’s poured into his campaign will undoubtedly give him a boost in those efforts.
While Rauner on Wednesday warned that a Pritzker ticket would push the state backwards, Pritzker said “Illinois is ready to turn the page.”
“We know that the promise of Illinois outweighs the problems of Illinois,” Pritzker said. “But we Democrats also know that we have to fight to put Springfield back on the side of working families.”
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown insisted the speaker is “not hiding,” saying Madigan has slipped out after his speech “for a number of years.”
“He just has to utilize his time. He had some other meetings in Springfield. He has to focus on fundraising. He did his part to get the crowd going. He’s not hiding from anything,” Brown said.
Brown called attention to Madigan’s exit “another desperate effort by Republicans to generate some attention for something other than the deaths of veterans at the Quincy Veterans Home.”
Organizers of the brunch scrambled to replace former Vice President Joe Biden as a headliner. The association on Tuesday night announced Biden was under doctor’s orders not to travel. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin told the crowd Biden has laryngitis. He vowed that Biden would return to Illinois to bolster Democratic support before the November election.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — a rising Democratic star — roused the crowd with talk of optimism for the party’s future and with criticisms of President Donald Trump. Buttigieg called Trump “basically a disgraced game show host” and Vice President Mike Pence “a social extremist, the likes of which our country has not known in national politics.”
“We have found a way to get to our future,” Buttigieg said of his hometown. “Not through nostalgia, not through resentment. I didn’t go around saying we were going to bring back Studebaker jobs or Make South Bend Great Again. Obviously it wasn’t just me. You did not see me or anyone else in our city going around beating our chests, saying things like ‘I alone can fix it.’ Don’t trust anybody who says ‘I alone can fix it.’ B——-.”
Speaking to reporters after the brunch, Durbin was coy when asked whether Buttigieg — who also ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee last year — could be a presidential contender.
“He made such a positive impression not just on me but on many of the people in our state and many of the places where he has spoken,” Durbin said. ”
“He won a lot of friends here today.”