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Madigan confidant tried to sway Pritzker but was blackballed after ‘trashing’ key gov staffer

Mike McClain, a former top lobbyist and close adviser to House Speaker Mike Madigan, was blacklisted from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office after orchestrating behind-the-scenes efforts to oust the gov’s pick for chief of staff, sources say.

(Clockwise from top left) Mike McClain, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s chief of staff Anne Caprara and Pritzker.
(Clockwise from top left) Mike McClain, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s chief of staff Anne Caprara and Pritzker.
Illinois Secretary of State lobbyist database, Sun-Times file photos

Two weeks before Anne Caprara stepped into one of the highest profile political roles of her life, she got a call from Gov. J.B. Pritzker with some uncomfortable news.

Pritzker sounded upset, according to a high-level source close to the governor. He said people were “trashing” Caprara to several others, including reporters, in an attempt to squash her appointment as Pritzker’s chief of staff.

Before running Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign, the Philadelphia native ran Hillary Clinton’s 2016 super PAC and also served as chief of staff to two U.S. congresswomen.

But Caprara wasn’t good enough to serve as the governor’s chief of staff, and she wasn’t from Illinois — a huge no-no, perhaps because she wasn’t beholden to the old boys network of Illinois politics, people were told.

The governor told Caprara he wouldn’t stand for it — and he called it sexist.

So Caprara got the job. And she later learned the effort to trash her was being led by Mike McClain, a Springfield insider and confidant to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

To the governor’s office, the behind-the-scenes rumblings — an effort to dethrone Caprara — was a sign McClain “clearly thinks he has a lot of power,” the source said.

But despite the bad blood, McClain continued to reach out to members of the governor’s staff after Pritzker’s inauguration about issues that affected his hometown of Quincy. He also offered unsolicited recommendations on candidates for state government jobs.

E-mails obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times from a Freedom of Information Act request show McClain recommended candidates to become the state’s director of aging, for the head of the Quincy Veterans Home and for the director of land management at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

In a Feb. 6 email to Army Lt. Col. Jaime Martinez, Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz and Sean Rapelyea, Pritzker’s deputy chief of staff for external affairs, McClain congratulated Martinez for being appointed director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Martinez ultimately stepped down two weeks later.

In that email, McClain offered an introduction. “Please bear with me and let me introduce myself. I was a Legislator from 1972 to 1983. I then practiced Law and lobbied until I recently retired in 2016, sort of,” McClain wrote.

That “sort of” has come into play in recent weeks. A Better Government Association and WBEZ story last month revealed McClain was paid $361,000 for “legal services” by Commonwealth Edison in the two years after his retirement.

McClain is under federal scrutiny as part of an ongoing investigation into ComEd’s lobbying practices in Illinois, a source told the Sun-Times.

Additionally, the Chicago Tribune has reported that authorities are looking into payments orchestrated by McClain that were made to Kevin Quinn, a former Madigan political operative, and that the feds secretly recorded McClain’s phone calls.

The emails obtained by the Sun-Times show McClain tried to meet with Pritzker Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell in late April to talk about a statewide capital construction bill that includes funding for roads and bridges. Mitchell ultimately dodged the invitation.

By May 1, Caprara had seen and heard enough to warrant a stern warning at a senior staff meeting: No one is allowed to communicate with McClain, and none of his clients “may come into this office,” the source said.

“It was a very clear directive about just how little access McClain had to the governor’s staff,” a second source close to the governor said. McClain had made efforts to try to derail the marijuana legalization measure and also tried to get involved in legislation that ultimately expanded forms of gambling statewide, the source said.

Two weeks after that staff meeting, McClain’s home was raided, “and then he went dark,” the source said.

As rumblings of the federal investigation get louder, questions remain as to whether McClain — one of Madigan’s most trusted advisers — is acting on behalf of the speaker or on his own.

Those in the governor’s office saw no outward indications McClain was acting on the speaker’s behalf, but they were skeptical. For her part, Caprara felt the speaker would come to her if he had an issue, the source said.

“I know McClain likes to present things as he was speaking for the speaker, but I’m genuinely confused as to whether it was him acting on his own or him feeling he had the go ahead,” the source said of McClain’s outreach efforts to the governor’s office. “I know they’re close and they talk a lot.”

There is no love lost between high-level staffers in Pritzker’s office and McClain: “McClain always represented himself as somebody who had a lot of power and influence on people, legislators and other folks,” the source said. If a recommendation came from McClain, it reflected a “black mark on a potential candidate unless somebody had been recommended by a whole host of other people,” the second source said.

“He kind of mocked the idea that we wanted diverse candidates to things. He would say ... ‘I know that you want a lesbian unicorn,’” that source said. “I don’t think Mike ever wanted anybody who wasn’t a white Irish man.”

McClain never told governor’s office staffers “do this or else; the speaker wants it,” the source said.

“I just think he had sufficient stature, and people should know . . . how close he was to the speaker and making assumptions based on that,” the source said.

McClain did not return calls for comment. An attorney for Madigan did not comment.

Contributing: Jon Seidel