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Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 09:06 pm

The spoils of victory

After their triumph, governor and legislative leaders are at it again

Illinois Democrats won a historic victory at the polls this month. Not since the Franklin Roosevelt landslide of 1936 have Democrats controlled every statewide office, both chambers of the General Assembly, and the Illinois Supreme Court.

But you’d never know it if you were at the Statehouse last week. Instead of bringing them closer together, the landslide has driven them further apart.

The annual veto session began last week, and the battle lines were drawn right off the bat, with a House committee passing an electric utility rate freeze that’s opposed by Senate President Emil Jones, a staunch ComEd ally, and a Senate committee passing a minimum-wage increase that was strongly supported by the governor and looked upon with dubious eyes by House Speaker Michael Madigan. The timing appeared deliberate on both sides, and it probably was.

Jones, whose Senate Democrats won a veto-proof majority this month, even took a public swipe at Madigan, asking reporters “Who?” when queried about his relationship with the House speaker.

Jones has long believed that House Speaker Michael Madigan doesn’t show him enough respect and that Democratic Party of Illinois chairman Michael Madigan does not adequately represent the liberal interests of their party. Jones’ new veto-proof majority has given him some major bragging rights, so the proper respect will be demanded. Since the election, grumbling about the state party’s failure to get involved in any races other than Madigan’s Illinois House contests has also been loud. For instance, while the state Republican Party was sending out mailers and doing media work on behalf of congressional candidates, Madigan’s only focus was maintaining his own majority. Madigan said last week that none of the campaigns asked for the party’s help, but a Jones partisan scoffed at the excuse.

It’s also no secret that Gov. Rod Blagojevich has long believed that Madigan is part of the problem in Illinois. During his first term, the governor was eventually forced to fully retreat from his attempts to help remake the party and sway Madigan’s own members against him — but he jumped right back into the saddle last week.

According to numerous sources, Blagojevich suggested to a group of Democratic House members last week that they threaten to vote against Madigan for speaker until he agrees to support the governor’s minimum-wage-increase legislation.

The unprecedented interference in a caucus leader’s internal affairs left longtime observers shaking their heads in amazement that the governor would so directly challenge Madigan so soon after the election.

“It remains to be seen whether this is the last mistake of the governor’s first term or the first mistake of his second term,” says Madigan spokesman Steve Brown, adding that the speaker is still open to working with the governor in the coming years.

Madigan has yet to commit to passing the minimum-wage legislation, which zoomed out of the Senate last week. Several of Madigan’s targeted incumbents were supported by big-business groups this year, so the speaker is not eager to double-cross them so soon after the election. Far more politically conservative than either Blagojevich or Jones, he appears to be setting himself up as a dam against a possible flood of liberal proposals from the two men.

The fact that a governor who is under a dozen-or-so federal investigations, who didn’t win a majority of the popular vote, and who still has a job-disapproval rating in the high fifties believes that he is secure enough to lash out at the most entrenched legislative leader in Illinois history is quite something to behold.

The two men are now even fighting publicly over whether Madigan is actively snubbing the governor in private.

The governor’s office claims that Blagojevich phoned Madigan twice last week to talk to him about the minimum-wage bill but that the speaker didn’t return either call. Madigan’s press secretary said he wasn’t aware of any calls from the governor’s office. I asked whether he would check, just to make sure, but he declined, saying that he would know about something as important as calls from the governor.

The governor’s press office then tracked down the record of one of the calls and reported back that Blagojevich tried to call Madigan at 2:51 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The speaker’s spokesman stuck by his claim, however.

Maybe Dr. Phil can conduct a relationship intervention. It may be the Democrats’ only hope of avoiding a massive implosion after their great “victory.”

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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