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Brown: The man who wants to replace Mike Madigan

Businessman Jason Gonzales, 41, is promising to mount the first real campaign in decades against Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan for the state representative seat Madigan has held since 1971. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

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Jason Gonzales, who expects to mount the first serious election challenge to House Speaker Michael J. Madigan in maybe forever, has no sign on his storefront campaign office.

Gonzales, a 41-year-old business consultant who spent his last three years picking up master’s degrees from both MIT and Harvard, says the low profile is by design.

“We prefer the under-the-radar methodology. …We don’t really want them to know where we are,” Gonzales said, “them” being Madigan’s vaunted political operatives.

A higher profile, Gonzales argues, would only invite a brick through the window or unwanted attention for the growing campaign staff he has recruited to help him take on the most powerful Democrat in state politics.

It’s an unusual approach from a candidate with an unusual back story. The mere fact Madigan has an opponent in the March primary is out of the ordinary.


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Madigan, who first took office in 1971, normally runs unopposed. The last candidate to try to unseat him in 2012 got less than a fourth of the vote.

But that was before state Republicans led by Gov. Bruce Rauner focused the blame on Madigan as the central cause of everything wrong with Illinois.

Removing Madigan from power has since become a rallying cry for many voters around the state.

Into that opportunity steps Gonzales, a political newcomer. He didn’t live in Madigan’s 22ndHouse district before deciding to explore a campaign against him in 2014 and makes no bones about expecting to receive much of his financial support from Republicans and Rauner supporters. They’ve already supplied the bulk of the $45,840 he’s reported so far.

“That doesn’t make me a Republican,” Gonzales argues.

No, it does not, and I don’t doubt he is a legitimate Democrat, just not a particularly partisan one.

Gonzales talks a very good pro-union game. As far as the power struggle between Madigan and Rauner, Gonzales’ says they are both to blame, but saves his harsher rhetoric for the Speaker, who he accuses of clinging to power while growing distant from his constituents.

Gonzales said he has never met Rauner and voted in 2014 to re-elect Gov. Pat Quinn.

Before leaving office in 2015, Quinn pardoned Gonzales for his 1991 conviction in Lake County for unlawful use of a credit card at age 17.

Gonzales has incorporated into his campaign his story of being a troubled teenager who turned his life around with a good education.

Gonzales, born in Elgin, grew up in Carpentersville and said he dropped out of Barrington High School at 16.

He later returned to high school and finally graduated at age 21. Gonzales then attended community college before making the leap to Duke University.

Gonzales’ campaign materials gloss over his suburban origins, suggesting he was a neighborhood kid who “spent his early years” on the Southwest Side in South Lawndale, “where my family owned a home.”

When questioned, Gonzales allowed it was his grandmother’s home and that the closest he came to spending his early years there (a considerable distance from Madigan’s Midway Airport legislative district) was visiting her on weekends.

Gonzales returned from Duke with an entrepreneurial bent that led him into numerous business pursuits — food concessions, restaurant equipment repair and real estate — while living in Kenwood and Lincoln Park.

Records show Gonzales made at least 14 campaign donations totaling $5,725 between 2003 and 2006. The recipients ranged from Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the Hispanic Democratic Organization to the Cook County Republican Party and GOP state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger.

Gonzales said he made most of the donations because he was trying to obtain a concession at O’Hare Airport and was told by friends he needed to “pay to play.” He said he never got a concession.

Gonzales decided to return to school in 2012 and got his MBA from MIT. He went straight from there into Harvard in 2014, where he got another master’s degree in public administration and picked up presidential adviser David Gergen as a mentor.

Before starting at Harvard with politics already on his mind, Gonzales said he rented a room in a house in the district’s Clearing neighborhood, then switched last year to an apartment on W. 59th St.

In my mind, that makes him the guy who arrived too late to take out the guy who stayed too long.

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