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Illinois Budget

Gov. Bruce Rauner reaches out to shake hands with House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, right middle, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, after delivering his budget address to a joint session of the General Assembly Wednesday at the Capitol in Springfield. 

Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register via AP

CHICAGO -- House Speaker Michael Madigan's undisputed political power came under attack Tuesday amid new criticism over his handling of harassment complaints as the March Democratic primary increasingly turns into a referendum on his leadership.

Madigan faced increasing calls for him to step down from the state Democratic chairman post he has held for two decades, as well as demands for an independent investigation of complaints that have led him to shed two top loyal political lieutenants in a week. The misconduct scandal comes as the long-serving speaker and his private interests as a property tax appeals lawyer already had been a focal point in several races.

The 75-year-old veteran Southwest Side power broker quickly pushed back. The calls to step down as state party chairman? "That's not going to happen," Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said.

As for calls for an outside investigation, the closely guarded Madigan offered to have his self-appointed counsel "assist," raising new questions about how independent the process of looking into sexual harassment complaints will be.

The harassment issue comes at a time of a surging progressive movement within the Democratic Party that threatens the stability of a party establishment that has ruled for decades. Those battles are playing out across the Democratic primary ballot, including contests for governor, Congress and even Cook County assessor.

There is no better example of the fight between the new-guard progressives and the old-guard, Madigan-led establishment than the speaker's backyard -- the Southwest Side and suburban 3rd Congressional District, home of Madigan's 13th Ward organization.

On Tuesday, Democratic challenger Marie Newman added her name to the list of those calling for the speaker to give up his party chairmanship. Newman is taking on 13-year Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, who succeeded his father, William, a 22-year congressman.

"It is time for Michael Madigan to resign as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Anything less would put the Democrats' political prospects at risk in November -- and more importantly, would send a signal to all victims that their voices don't matter, and that the status quo will never be disrupted," she said.

Newman's call came as more and more rank-and-file female Democratic lawmakers sought an independent investigation into the handling of the two harassment complaints, saying Madigan-led efforts were not appropriate.

"We need to do this in a way that brings an end to the drip, drip, drip," said Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy, one of 34 women in Madigan's 67-member House Democratic caucus. "I want to rip the Band-Aid off and know what we are dealing with."

Cassidy said that likely would require the help of someone outside of Illinois. The Chicago legislator said "normally" the Illinois attorney general would be asked to intervene, "but there is nothing normal about this."

Attorney General Lisa Madigan is the speaker's daughter. She is not seeking re-election after serving four terms.

"I think she has shown herself to be relatively independent of him, but the reality is the public needs to trust in this. We have to do whatever we can to make sure the credibility of this is unquestionable," Cassidy said.

Brown, Madigan's spokesman, said the speaker spoke with Cassidy about her calls for an outside investigation. Brown said Madigan told Cassidy that he would "cooperate fully" and would ask the speaker's designated outside counsel, Kelly Smith-Haley, to "assist."

Cassidy said she didn't know what Madigan meant by "assist" but would speak further with Smith-Haley. Earlier Tuesday, Cassidy said the investigators "should not be Democratic elected officials, individuals or firms with pre-existing ties to the speaker."

But there are questions about Smith-Haley's ties to Madigan's political operation. Smith-Haley's brother Bill Smith is a partner at Cornerstone Government Affairs, a lobbying firm, while another brother, Mike Smith, is a principal and senior director, NBC-owned WMAQ-Ch. 5 reported. Brown referred questions about the family relationship to Smith-Haley, who could not be reached for comment.

In June, Madigan's former political director Will Cousineau joined Cornerstone. Cousineau worked for Madigan for nearly 18 years, according to the firm's website, and was in charge of political operations in 2016 when the harassment issues allegedly took place.

Before Madigan responded to Cassidy, Democratic state Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake said, "We need a real, independent law firm, not someone that is hired by the chair of the party, and that's what's happened."

Bush also said she did not believe the chair of the Democratic Party should also serve as either speaker of the House or president of the Senate. Bush said Madigan "should seriously consider" resigning as party chairman.

"I think there is an incestuous relationship that occurs there that is not healthy," Bush said.

Democratic state Sen. Toi Hutchinson of Olympia Fields said "the reason you don't have hordes of women running forward and telling their stories and naming names is because we are still not safe to do that.

"Independence has to be connected to fair and impartial, and I don't know if any of us know what that looks like right now," Hutchinson said.

On Friday, the speaker sent a letter to House Democrats saying he bears "responsibility" for failing to do more to prevent harassment, abuse or retaliation at the statehouse and on the campaign trail. The note followed a tumultuous week for Madigan, who days earlier announced longtime 13th Ward political operative Kevin Quinn was cut loose.

That announcement came hours after the Chicago Tribune interviewed campaign worker Alaina Hampton, who shared text messages that detail a relentless series of entreaties from Quinn, her supervisor. Quinn also commented on her appearance, calling her "smoking hot."

On Monday, Madigan announced a second high-ranking campaign staffer would no longer be involved in his campaign organization, citing "inappropriate behavior by a volunteer toward a candidate and staff" during a 2016 campaign.

While Madigan's statement did not name the operative, sources familiar with the circumstances confirmed that it is Shaw Decremer, a Capitol lobbyist whose client list includes ComEd, Dish Network and the Illinois State Medical Society.

Democratic state Rep. Deb Conroy of Villa Park described the Decremer case as an "abuse of power."

"We change the culture by calling out the bullies, by saying this behavior is not acceptable, and it needs to change," Conroy said.

Madigan's political organization effectively seized control of the state Democratic Party operation in 1990, and the speaker formally became its chairman eight years later. The move effectively consolidated his political power and fundraising ability, and he's focused largely on ensuring Democratic majorities in the Illinois House.

During his 47 years in the Illinois House, 35 of them as speaker, there have been several premature pronouncements of Madigan's political demise.

Madigan himself has not been formally accused of any harassment, and his supporters have said the speaker has sought to take quick action to deal with the #MeToo issue.

Still, internal Democratic criticism of Madigan -- or even the appearance of a weakened House speaker -- could play into Republican hands in the fall after four years and tens of millions of dollars in attack ads by GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Rauner's sustained campaign has vastly diminished Madigan's public standing, and the governor has blamed the speaker's lengthy tenure for Illinois' ills. Madigan has accused those calling for him to step down from either the speakership, the party chairmanship or both as doing Rauner's handiwork.

But the controversy has helped fuel Madigan critics.

Democratic attorney general candidate Scott Drury, a state representative from Highwood, doubled down on his previous call for Madigan to resign. He sent the speaker a letter in which he also requested Madigan testify under oath to a House personnel committee and allow legislation to move forward to appoint an independent investigator similar to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into connections between the Russian government and people connected with Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

"To the public, it appears you are more concerned with protecting alleged abusers, harassers and bullies than you are with protecting alleged victims," Drury wrote.

Democratic governor candidate Chris Kennedy previously has attacked Madigan's private career as a property tax appeals lawyer in a "corrupt" real estate tax system. On Tuesday, Kennedy said Madigan needed to give up the reins of the party chairmanship during an independent investigation.

"We need to set the tone at the top. The head of the Democratic Party needs to make the sacrifice and say, 'Look, I'm stepping aside.' I don't believe that the speaker did anything wrong. I don't know that he did. But unless he steps aside and allows someone else to lead that investigation, well, he'll never calm these waters," Kennedy said on a day he campaigned with his nephew, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass.

Chris Kennedy also used the harassment controversy to attack one of his rivals, billionaire J.B. Pritzker, who has avoided direct criticism of Madigan throughout the campaign. Pritzker, who has poured $56.2 million of his fortune into his campaign, has seen the Democratic establishment coalesce behind his candidacy.

"I think people like J.B. Pritzker who can't criticize him (Madigan), that makes it very difficult to win the general election," Kennedy said. "It makes him almost unelectable in a general election. We need to have that freedom, the space to be critical of our own party. Unless we have that freedom, then the leadership is, in fact, toxic."

In response, Pritzker said in a statement that "it's clear that not enough was done and there needs to be a completely independent investigation to get to the bottom of what took place and hold the right people accountable."

"I agree with Rep. Kelly Cassidy and believe the people investigating Speaker Madigan's operation should have no political or other ties to the speaker," said Pritzker, who added that a new Democratic task force on women "will help make our party and our state stronger." Madigan created the task force last weekend.

Another Democratic contender for governor, state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, who is seeking to appeal to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders-style progressives, has called for Madigan to step down as party chairman.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general, announced Tuesday that he was donating a $250 contribution from Decremer to the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which helps with legal representation for sexual harassment victims.

Rick Pearson reported from Chicago.

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