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Lisa Madigan: Running for office hard work, women candidates walk fine line

BY MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA

mihejirika@suntimes.com

In the wake of her announcement she won’t be running for governor, recent comments by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan on the challenges facing women who run for public office offer insight into the candidate now planning to run for re-election.

At the June 27 luncheon hosted by the pro-choice, pro-Democratic women’s political organization Emily’s List, Madigan — who on Monday ended months of speculation over a possible gubernatorial bid — spoke of how women candidates have to walk a fine line between appearing tough and at the same time likable.

Madigan said she works hard to come off as a strong politician able to make the hard decisions, while avoiding a public persona that might cross over into “the b-word.” Having a family, however, helps in the public perception arena, she said.

Madigan finds campaigning to be hard work; raising children to be more challenging than negotiating with legal adversaries; and said learning to ask for help has been one of her greatest lessons as a politician.

“I run the fourth largest law firm in the state,” the 46-year-old married mother of two, serving her third term as the state’s top lawyer, said.

“There’s no easy solutions. There’s so much gridlock. People demand tough. They also demand results. [But] there’s always the concern of, well, are you too tough? Are you going to become the b-word? And you really don’t want that to happen.”

The Emily’s List panel discussion was one of the last public appearances where Madigan discussed a potential gubernatorial bid.

Asked once again whether her father would have to step down if she ran, the daughter of powerful House Speaker and Illinois Democratic Chairman Michael Madigan had sounded unequivocal then: “He wouldn’t have to. He wouldn’t have to step down.”

But something changed dramatically by Monday, when she announcemed she would not run because she believes the state would not be “well served” if she were elected and her father remained Speaker.

Lisa Madigan became the first woman elected the state’s Attorney General in 2002, narrowly defeating Republican Joe Birkett with 50.4 percent of the vote.

Prior, she’d served as a member of the Illinois Senate from 1998 to 2002; and before that was a litigator for the Chicago-based law firm Sachnoff & Weaver.

“I thought being in private practice was hard work,” said Madigan.

“The biggest lesson I learned when first getting involved in a campaign…running for office is a lot of work. I spent the better part of a day going door to door,” she recalled. Among her greatest lessons in over 15 years in public office, she said, are: “Hard work. Be honest. And you’d better be able to ask people to help you, with their vote…their money…putting a sign in their window…asking their neighbors and friends to put a sign in their yard.”

Married to Chicago cartoonist Pat Byrnes — her husband is the primary caregiver for their two daughters, Rebecca, 8, and Lucy, 5 — Madigan said for women politicians, having a family can help “soften” a necessarily tough public persona.

“People often vote with their gut. They want to like you,” she said. “Luckily, in my circumstance, having a family helps. It gives you a better appreciation of what a lot of people have to go through, and it does, I think in the public’s mind, soften you — presuming you’re actually engaged with your family and aren’t just using them as political props.”

As she contemplated the gubernatorial bid, Madigan stressed she had her family’s full support. “They’re all in,” she said. “The benefit for me is that I have a husband that works from home.”

In 2002, Madigan was among only a handful of women attorneys general. Today, she is the senior-most female attorney general of many nationwide.

She won a second term in 2006 — defeating Republican Stewart “Stu” Umholtz with the largest vote total of any statewide candidate in that election. And in 2010, she won a third term with almost 65% of the vote in a landslide defeat of three challengers.

Madigan is grateful for a strong support base from women. “They have been contributing…there from the beginning,” she said. And frankly, she added, raising children can be much more challenging than public office.

“If you can raise kids, you can do anything,” the attorney general said. “Getting two kids out of bed…getting them through brushing teeth before bed…That can be the most difficult part of the day. Put me across from lawyers. That’s an easier fight.”