Illinois Politics a Family Affair

by Jeff Fleischer

(Medill News Service, October 24, 2002)

Lisa Madigan

Lisa Madigan

(By Jeff Fleischer and Juliet Martinez)

If Illinois politics were a soap opera, it would be called “Dynasty.” But instead of J.R., local voters have followed the storylines of Richie, Rod and Lisa.

Family connections have featured prominently in this year’s elections, with attorney general candidate Lisa Madigan, gubernatorial contender Rod Blagojevich and many others across the state following in the footsteps of their political relatives.

These candidates must balance the advantages of family ties and name recognition with the challenge of carving out their own identities.

“[The name] gets you started, but you can fall mighty hard and fast if you don’t measure up,” said former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, a fourth-generation Illinois politician. “People out there are watching you and waiting for you to stumble.”

Stevenson, whose father twice ran for president as the Democratic nominee, said a well-known name can help or harm a candidate based on how the public perceives the family.

“If it’s a good name, which mine was, it helps,” he said. “If your name is Capone, then it doesn’t help at all.”

Alan Gitelson, a political science professor at Loyola University, said Lisa Madigan’s campaign has grappled with that problem. Madigan, a state senator from Chicago, is the daughter of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“Lisa Madigan benefits from resources that having a powerful father brings,” Gitelson said. “[But] she probably would not have become a candidate without her father, and she’s had to deal with that.”

In fact, Madigan has dealt with consistent attempts by Republican opponent Joe Birkett to portray her campaign as an extension of her father’s political clout.

“The only thing that Lisa Madigan has brought to this campaign is a sharp tongue, a thin resume, and the power and influence of her father,” Birkett said at the candidates’ debate Sunday.

Political consultant Don Rose said Madigan has done a good job of overcoming that perception. He said she has voted several times against bills her father supports, and her pro-choice views clash with his.

Blagojevich, a Democratic North Side congressman, has faced similar questions about fund-raising help from his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell (33rd).

“I think Blagojevich is probably most vulnerable in terms of his perceived connection with Chicago politics, clearly with his father-in-law being an alderman and the mayor [Richard M. Daley] being chairman of his campaign,” said Kenneth Janda, professor of political science at Northwestern University. “To a lot of voters, Chicago means corruption.”

But Gitelson said the Mell connection is less of an issue because of Blagojevich’s presence in Illinois politics, and that the candidate would probably be viable without help from his well-connected relatives.

Moreover, Janda said Blagojevich could benefit downstate from another name association — the perceived link between his Republican opponent, Attorney General Jim Ryan, and current Gov. George Ryan, who are not related. Jim Ryan has tried to distance himself from the governor, whose name has been tarnished by scandals uncovered in the secretary of state’s office during George Ryan’s tenure in that position.

While Blagojevich and Madigan might be the highest-profile characters in Illinois’ campaign soap opera, they are hardly the only ones carrying the political gene into the Nov. 5 election.

— Republican Aurelia Pucinski, the former Cook County Circuit Court clerk, is running for Illinois Appellate Court judge. She is the daughter of the late Roman Pucinski, a Democratic U.S. congressman and Chicago alderman.

— Democrat Kevin Joyce, the son of former state Sen. Jeremiah Joyce, is running for the Illinois House from the 35th District in the southwest metro area.

— Bob Rita is the Democratic candidate for the 28th District in the Illinois House, which includes part of the South Side and southern suburbs. He is the son of Blue Island Alderman Rose Rita and former Blue Island Mayor John Rita.

— Democrat Brandon Phelps, a nephew of U.S. Rep. David Phelps, is running for the 118th District state House seat in downstate Harrisburg.

— Republican Willie Jordan Jr. is running for the 30th District House seat, which covers south suburban Markham. He is the son of the Rev. Willie Jordan, the influential president of the South Suburban Baptist Ministers Conference.

— U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who represents the 2nd Congressional District on the city’s South Side, is the son of Operation PUSH founder Rev. Jesse Jackson.

— Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, son of former Cook County Assessor and state Sen. Tom Hynes, also is running for re-election.

Hynes, a Democrat, said he didn’t choose to go into the family business until after graduating law school.

“I didn’t grow up with the assumption that I would run for office, but I was always involved in politics,” Hynes said. “It was a part of my being.”

When he won the comptroller race in 1998 at age 30, Hynes became the youngest elected official for statewide office since 1942. He said his father’s reputation was an asset, but it wasn’t well-known statewide.

“In the Cook County area, where my father built a reputation — a very solid reputation for many years — people knew my family,” Hynes said. “In the rest of the state, there was no reputation. I had to introduce myself and prove myself.”

Hynes said his father’s experience gave him a boost in getting his campaign off the ground.

“The greatest advantage of being from a political family is you have a built-in knowledge about political campaigning,” he said.

Gitelson said that knowledge also carries over once offspring get elected, as they are familiar with politics in a way that outsiders are not. “If you come from a political life, you have connections and a view of the system that may be more sophisticated than a neophyte who doesn’t come from that background,” he said.

Stevenson, whose son Warwick is continuing the family tradition by running for the 89th District House seat in northwest Illinois, said growing up in a political family gave him a sense of purpose that proved to be an advantage once he was elected.

“My whole life was spent in preparation,” he said. “If you know that you’re destined to public service and you have a conscience as well as some curiosity, your whole life is changed.”

Soon Daley, the son of former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, will decide whether to seek re-election. The younger Daley was elected mayor in 1989 and is currently in his fourth term; his father ran the city from 1955 until his death in 1976.

While famous political names like Stevenson, Daley, Rostenkowski and Hartigan have appeared on ballots from one generation to the next, consultant Rose said the practice has served Illinois voters well.

“The history we have of nepotistic politics in Illinois has been generally positive,” he said. “The political dynasties haven’t panned out to be negative dynasties. The sons and daughters of politicians have not suffered from the identification.”

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