Under Madigan Corruption Cloud, Election Season Begins in Illinois

It was cold and snowy Monday in Illinois’ capital city, yet scores of folks spent hours lined up outside an otherwise nondescript strip mall where the Illinois State Board of Elections is based.

Those in line weren’t random anybodies: Some are prominent politicians; others are aspiring to be.

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“It’s democracy in action,” said Alexi Giannoulias, a Democrat running for secretary of state.

State Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) is also running for the post, which Secretary of State Jesse White is vacating for the first time since 1998.

“I’m glad to be here, it’s another phase in the process, an important phase in the process – it’s getting your name on the ballot,” Brady said. 

Queuing up at elections offices is part tradition, part a demonstration of strength that a candidate’s filing paperwork is ready and in order on time. It’s also part of a strategy to get media attention.

There’s also a real practical benefit for the early filers. 

Anyone in line to file their petitions by the time election authorities opened their doors has a chance to be listed first on the ballot for their race, a position that could make a difference by attracting voters’ eyeballs in a close contest.

In order to make it on the June 28 primary ballot, Illinois candidates have to collect signatures from registered voters – the amount varies depending on the race, but for statewide candidates, thousands of signatures are required.

Typically, petition gathering is done in the fall, but this year the primary was moved from March 15 to June 28, delaying and condensing the window candidates had to get signatures.

“This was the most difficult election I’ve ever been involved in,” Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough said. “First of all this is Chicago; this is winter. There’s a pandemic. They squeezed us – usually we have 90 days, this year we only had 60 days to get petitions. People didn’t answer their doors. Love Ring cameras. They don’t work for us.”

As she runs for another term, Yarbrough had to go through the petition process herself.

She’s also in charge of collecting the mounds of paperwork, a process which she said went smoothly on Monday, even as the clerk’s office debuted a new program that aims to have all petitions scanned and accessible online.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s done this routine before; she’s running for a fourth term in office. She also called it “probably the most challenging petition drive that we’ve ever had, in large part because of weather and the shortened time period and the pandemic.”

Preckwinkle is chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, so she also has responsibilities to ensure petitions for candidates slated by the party are in order.

In ticking off reasons the 2022 petition drive was particularly difficult, she didn’t mention another potential reason voters may not be keen to sign petitions: That they’re fed up with politics, especially in light of the indictment last Wednesday of former House speaker and former Democratic State Party chair, Michael Madigan.

“The charges are against Speaker Madigan, so he’s the one to be held accountable,” Preckwinkle said.

Madigan has long denied he did anything wrong, and he and his lawyers have issued statements saying his record will be defended in court.

Asked whether she was surprised by the corruption charges, Preckwinkle said “of course not.”

She has called on Madigan to step down as committeeman for Chicago’s 13th Ward.

While Preckwinkle didn’t voice concern about Madigan being a drag on Democrats, Republicans are sure to spend the next several months trying.

“I’m hearing (from voters) that they believe crime is out of control under (Gov.) J.B. Pritzker. Taxes and wasteful spending is out of control. Corruption is out of control. Our residents of Illinois want a difference, they want somebody who is actually going to look out for their interest,” said Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, a GOP candidate for governor.

Former Republican state senator Paul Schimpf of Waterloo, also running for governor, said Madigan is “the symptom, he is not the cause of corruption in Illinois.”

“We really need a fundamental change in our political system, and it starts really with voters electing candidates and officials that are trustworthy,” Schimpf said. “I think that Illinois has the infrastructure and the talent to succeed but we’re being held back by a dysfunctional government and political class right now. We really need a fundamental change in our political system and it starts with voters electing candidates and officials that are trustworthy.”

Schmipf said if elected, he would veto any measure – even those he supports – passed without transparency.

Often when there’s a deadline for a controversial measure, legislation passes quickly in Springfield during odd hours and without public hearings.

The Republican primary for Illinois governor is among the crowded contests this year.

But other contests are sure to be competitive, among them races for secretary of state, Congress, and Cook County sheriff.

Carmen Navarro Gercone, who used to work in the sheriff’s office, got teary talking about all that went into getting her campaign together, and what’s at stake as the election cycle takes off.

“I’m a mother, a grandmother, I’ve lived in Cook County my entire life. My family left the city in the ‘80s after my brother was murdered, and watching all the crime and stuff going on now, I don’t want to flee with my family. Somebody has to do something. I just couldn’t sit on the sidelines,” she said.

Even in a regular election year, it can be especially difficult for first-timers who don’t have big budgets and political organizations to help with the petition drive -– a painstaking process that must be done with precision, at the risk of having signatures tossed, and getting knocked off the ballot.

Candidates running as Democrats and Republicans have another week to get their petitions submitted to the proper election authorities.

After March 14, petitions are subject to review and possible challenges.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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