Gary LaPaille, former state senator, Democratic Party of Illinois chair, Madigan staffer, dies at 68

He was “a Democrat’s Democrat. ... His blood was blue,” said former Virginia Gov. and ex-Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe.

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Then-Arkansas Gov. and future President Bill Clinton (left) and Democratic Party of Illinois Chairman Gary LaPaille take an early morning run along Chicago’s lakefront with campaign workers and local college students in November 1991.

Then-Arkansas Gov. and future President Bill Clinton (left) and Democratic Party of Illinois Chairman Gary LaPaille take an early morning run along Chicago’s lakefront with campaign workers and local college students in November 1991.

Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Gary LaPaille launched a career in politics and government in Chicago, Springfield and Washington while in high school, working weekends in the 13th Ward Democratic organization office on the city’s Southwest Side, where he was raised.

His 1988 marriage to Christine Freveletti was rooted in politics. Their romance blossomed while Mr. LaPaille was chief of staff to then-House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat who ran the 13th Ward organization, and Christine was the chief of staff to then-Minority Leader Lee Daniels, a Republican.

Christine LaPaille said the relationship ripened when they both were in Seattle attending a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures and Mr. LaPaille suggested they skip out and take a ferry to Vancouver. Still, “we were opposite chiefs. We ran campaigns against each other.”

Mr. LaPaille died Dec. 1 at his home in Potomac, Maryland, a Washington suburb, after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Christine LaPaille said. He was 68.

Mr. LaPaille worked in various positions for Madigan, rising to be his powerful chief of staff for a dozen years. With Madigan’s support, Mr. LaPaille became the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, running the party between 1990 and 1998.

In 1992, Mr. LaPaille was elected to the Illinois State Senate, where he served one two-year term.

As an activist state party chair, Mr. LaPaille’s local and national profile grew as he promoted Democratic candidates and causes, and diversified, modernized and opened up the party to volunteers who did not come from machine wards.

Mr. LaPaille became close to then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton when he was running for president in the 1992 Democratic primary.

Mr. LaPaille played a key role in the movement that has made Illinois a solid blue state, with voters in Illinois backing Democrats for president in every election since 1992.

While state party chair, Mr. LaPaille was elected president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs and became a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

He played a role in landing the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Along the way, there was a falling out with Madigan. The road to reconciliation, Christine LaPaille said, started during the Barack Obama years when Madigan attended a party Mr. LaPaille hosted at the Billy Goat Tavern — the D.C. version of the famed Chicago bar and grill.

On Oct. 11, Madigan posted a note on Mr. LaPaille’s page on the CaringBridge.org website that said, “I am very proud of you today, as always. You have enjoyed great personal and professional accomplishments. You and Chris have raised three wonderful and outstanding children. Love, Mike.”

Madigan is facing federal corruption charges stemming from the Commonwealth Edison influence-peddling scandal to win favorable legislation. Madigan has pleaded not guilty.

The election of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was one of Mr. LaPaille’s proudest achievements, Christine LaPaille said.

Durbin said, “In 1996, I was a downstate Congressman largely unknown in Chicago. I faced a crowded Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, which included future Gov. Pat Quinn. But Gary was in my corner and engineered the earliest party endorsement ever. It was the kickoff to my wins in the primary and general election. He also hit the campaign trail on my behalf all across the state. Gary was a true friend who understood the business of politics.”

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Bill and Hillary Clinton confidant, worked closely with Mr. LaPaille, starting in the 1990s, when McAuliffe was the DNC finance chair and later the DNC chair.

Mr. LaPaille was “a Democrat’s Democrat. ... His blood was blue,” McAuliffe said. Mr. LaPaille was close to the Clinton network, and before moving to Washington would run and work out with Bill Clinton during Chicago visits, McAuliffe said. “The President loved him. Hillary loved him,” McAuliffe said.

“Bill called me the other day to offer condolences and reminisce,” Christine LaPaille said.

As DPI chair, Mr. LaPaille “was there for any candidate running for office and he stuck with them, even when it looked like they would not pull it out,” recalled Wendy Cohen, who was a DPI executive director under Mr. LaPaille.

Gary J. LaPaille was born March 14, 1954, to Edward and Dolores LaPaille. Edward LaPaille, who died in 2017, was an engineer in the city’s Department of Transportation and was a top 13th Ward precinct captain for decades.

Mr. LaPaille was a 1972 graduate of St. Laurence College Preparatory High School, picking up an undergraduate degree in finance from Loyola University in 1976.

During college, Mr. LaPaille worked four summers for the city in Streets and Sanitation.

After college in 1976, Mr. LaPaille joined Madigan’s issues staff in Springfield, moving to the office of then comptroller Roland Burris for a stint before returning to Madigan’s staff as director of issues and policy.

After leaving the state Senate, Mr. LaPaille launched a career as a lobbyist, founding his firm, Capitol Management Group, in 1995.

The LaPaille family moved to Washington in 1999 when his firm was acquired by MWH Global. He was senior vice president for government affairs at MWH until 2016. After that, he was a senior adviser at Dentons law firm.

Mr. LaPaille remained well connected to Illinois politics even after moving to Washington, hosting an annual holiday party at Gibsons on Rush Street. Friends and ex-staffers were planning to gather at Gibsons on Wednesday to remember Mr. LaPaille. On Facebook, Barb Guttman, who was a DPI executive director under Mr. LaPaille, wrote, “We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, we’ll drink — all while remembering a great guy who is gone far too early.”

Besides Christine, survivors include his mother, Dolores LaPaille; sons Joseph and Samuel and daughter, Grace. There is a Thursday wake in Bethesda, Maryland, and a funeral Mass on Friday in Potomac. There will be a Chicago celebration of Mr. LaPaille’s life early next year.

Gary LaPaille (center) at a 1992 campaign rally in Springfield with Democratic National Committee Chair Ron Brown (left) and vice presidential nominee Al Gore.

Gary LaPaille (center) at a 1992 campaign rally in Springfield with Democratic National Committee Chair Ron Brown (left) and vice presidential nominee Al Gore.

Screen grab from CSPAN

Gary LaPaille, who died Dec. 1 at the age of 68, in a 1998 meeting of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.

Gary LaPaille, who died Dec. 1 at the age of 68, in a 1998 meeting of the Association of State Democratic Chairs.

CSPAN

President Bill Clinton thanks Democratic Party of Illinois Chairman Gary LaPaille at a fundraiser in 1997 at Navy Pier.

President Bill Clinton thanks Democratic Party of Illinois Chairman Gary LaPaille at a fundraiser in 1997 at Navy Pier.

Jon Sall/Sun-Times

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