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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009 05:24 am

Rising star

Why Lisa Madigan leads the political pack

Lisa Madigan takes the oath of office in January 2007 for a second term as attorney general. With Madigan is her husband, Pat Byrnes, center, and Joel Flaum of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“So how was the inauguration?” If you had asked Lisa Madigan that casual question on Barack Obama’s third day in office, you would’ve been treated to a 15-minute rhapsody on the joys of having a seat on the platform looking out over the podium and onward toward the estimated 1.5 million well-wishers thronging the mall.

“It was just this sea of happy humanity, as far as the eye could see,” Madigan says.

All of Illinois’ statewide officeholders had platform passes, and Madigan — a former state senator and now Illinois’ Attorney General — joined retiring State Senate President Emil Jones and his successor John Cullerton in marveling over the fact that they were watching their former legislative colleague become the leader of the free world. “We were giddy. We were all like kids,” she says.

Madigan viewed the ceremony with a veteran eye, having attended presidential oath-takings twice before. But Obama’s inauguration felt different from those of President Bill Clinton, she says, and not just because the new president was her old seatmate and next-door-office neighbor in the state capitol.

“Never ever had I seen so many people out on the mall, and never had I seen and felt the excitement and stood there and said, ‘This is history. We are witness to and participants in history.’ You almost can’t find adequate words to describe the swearing-in,” she says, “but it was unbelievable. Incredible. Phenomenal.”

And next thing you know, Madigan segues neatly into the story of the year she spent in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa as a volunteer teacher at an all-girls school run by Dominican nuns. It’s a story she has told so many times that it has found its way into countless newspaper articles and every Madigan bio, no matter how brief, even though the year was 1988 — 20 years ago.

She has no shortage of accomplishments in the intervening seasons: she worked at a big Chicago law firm, won a state senate seat in 1998, bested veteran DuPage County prosecutor Joe Birkett in the contest for attorney general in 2002 and then, in 2006, won re-election with more votes than any other statewide candidate. Along the way, she has amassed a track record of landmark legislation, litigation and advocacy impressive enough to silence naysayers who once claimed that she owed her political career to her father, Speaker of the House Mike Madigan. In 2004, she became the first Illinois AG in the past 25 years to personally and successfully argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and a month later she became the first elected statewide official in Illinois to give birth (she and her husband, freelance cartoonist Pat Byrnes, now have two daughters — Rebecca Grace Madigan Byrnes, age 4, and Lucy Lillian Madigan Byrnes, 10 months). If that weren’t enough, in her spare time, she has perfected her chicken tikka masala.

Yet that year in South Africa still serves as her touchstone, her reference point, the horizon against which she views life — even from the platform of the U.S. Capitol. “I think [Obama’s] election changes everything, around the world,” she says, looping the conversation back to its starting point.

Madigan greets incoming freshmen at Douglass Academy High School in Chicago before launching the “Not me” program, an initiative to curb teen violence and prevent youth drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

A cynic could speculate that by regularly referencing this noble and exotic service she’s subtly laying the groundwork for her own possible political future, which appears limitless. In May, influential Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn published an urgent “memo” beseeching Madigan to announce her candidacy for governor already. “Three words: Hat. Ring. Now,” he wrote. That same month, the New York Times listed Madigan, among several other women (including Alaska Governor Sarah Palin), in a Sunday feature story headlined, “She just might be president someday.” And heck yeah, a year in apartheid-era South Africa would trump Palin’s I-can-see-Russia-from-my-back-porch credentials any day.

But people who know Madigan say that she’s wired the opposite — meaning the right — way. Her good works aren’t designed to boost her career; rather, her career is designed to increase her ability to do good.

The term underlings use when they explain Madigan’s motives is the word “cheesy,” as in “I know it sounds cheesy but . . . .” Some call her “hyperethical,” saying she keeps the AG’s office so kosher that even top aides got their first word of her 2006 re-election bid from watching it on the evening news. Employees are expressly forbidden from contributing to her campaign or being solicited by others. The only “ticket” they’re asked to buy is for the office Christmas party, and that features a cash bar (no state funds involved).

“Politics never came up — ever. It just wasn’t an appropriate subject of discussion,” says Gary Feinerman, who served as the AG’s solicitor general from 2003 through 2007. “It wasn’t one iota of one part of how the office operated.”

Ben Weinberg, who became chief of the AG’s public interest division in 2003, admits that absorbing Madigan’s mindset required an adjustment period. One of the first cases he handled for Madigan was a disability rights lawsuit against Walgreens for failure to make a substantial percentage of their stores wheelchair accessible. The drugstore chain was represented by a private Chicago firm eager to settle, and after a series of negotiations, Weinberg went to his boss with what he thought was a good deal: Walgreens would modify its inaccessible stores and pay a $150,000 penalty.

“I thought she would be pleased,” Weinberg says.

She wasn’t.

She reminded Weinberg that approximately 250 stores had violated the disabilities act, and each violation would carry a $1,000 penalty if prosecuted individually. “She said: ‘This company made it impossible for people in wheelchairs to enter their stores, and wouldn’t fix the problem until we sued them. And now you want to give them a volume discount?’ ” Weinberg recalls.

He reminded Madigan that this settlement had been negotiated by the judge hearing the case, and that His Honor wouldn’t be happy if the AG refused the deal. But Madigan told Weinberg to consider whom he was representing: “She said: ‘You go back and tell the judge it’s not good enough for the people of Illinois.’ ”

The judge was indeed angry, and responded by setting a court schedule that was difficult for Weinberg to meet. Eventually, though, he wrangled a settlement of $350,000 plus independent monitors to oversee Walgreens repairs.

“It got me starting to see things the way that Lisa Madigan sees things. We work for a client, and it’s the people,” he says. “It does sound kind of cheesy, and it took me a while to use that vocabulary without feeling cheesy. But it’s true.”

Weinberg learned his lesson. In 2007, when Madigan tasked him with recouping unauthorized rate increases from Commonwealth Edison, Ameren and Exelon, he and his team negotiated a $1 billion settlement for the people of Illinois. “She unleashed us to really do that in a way that no other attorney general has ever done it,” Weinberg says.

He attributes Madigan’s ability to go after corporate giants to two traits: Her apolitical attitude, and her knack for recruiting top talent. “Utility companies are very powerful, and people who run for office don’t usually like to anger powerful entities,” he says. “Plus, in the past, I don’t think the attorney general’s office has had the personnel or the leadership to really go toe-to-toe with utility companies.”

He left the AG’s office in June 2008, and is now national pro bono manager for Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal, where his salary is significantly higher than what he was being paid at the AG’s office.

On behalf of the people of Illinois, Madigan and her crew of 300-plus attorneys, 80 of them in Springfield, have forged templates for other states to follow in the areas of regulating health care costs, opening government records, tracking sex offenders and child pornographers, and stymieing methamphetamine production. Her office was going after fraudulent mortgage schemes and predatory lenders years ago, long before the issue became a staple of national news; in March 2008, she filed suit against Countrywide — the nation’s largest home mortgage lender — asking for all loans based on deceptive practices to be rescinded or reformed. Her office is also actively pursuing about 15 fraudulent “mortgage rescue” enterprises.

Kathy Saltmarsh, who works in Madigan’s Springfield office as her legislative director, describes her boss as “a true leader” for taking the trailblazer attitude. “She’s not looking around to see what other people are doing; she’s looking to see how she can address people’s problems. That’s the satisfaction of working here — seeing that kind of approach,” Saltmarsh says.

Howard Peters, senior vice-president of the Illinois Hospital Association, says he got off to a rocky start with Madigan in 2006 when she began pushing legislation that would reform the way hospitals handle billing and collections, and another measure that would cap the amount hospitals could charge uninsured patients. But now he sounds positively proud of both bills.

“We were able to work through some landmark legislation that’s a model for the rest of the country,” he says. “We started out in a polarized place, and it did take some time to work through these issues . . . . Perhaps when we disagreed most was when we talked the most. And because of that, we’ve done some remarkable things on behalf of the people of Illinois.”

Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Leah Wade, assistant attorney general, examine a fatal design flaw in a recalled Delta baby crib during a news conference last fall. Madigan filed a lawsuit against SFCA, Inc., the distributor of bassinets that have cause

Just as no case is too big, apparently no case is too small, either. Madigan’s office has pursued small-time home repair contractors, price-gouging gas stations, fly-by-night wedding photographers and famously prosecuted the Dave Matthews Band’s bus driver after he emptied the bus’s toilet while crossing a Chicago bridge, accidentally drenching tourists on a sightseeing boat below with 800 pounds of celebrity effluent (the bus driver eventually pleaded guilty).

How does she describe this diverse spectrum of work to her 4-year-old daughter, Rebecca? “I tell her that mommy helps people,” Madigan says.

To grown-ups, she offers a similar though more fulsome definition: “I’m the managing partner of the largest public interest law firm in the state,” she says. “People think of the state as this entity that is separate from the people, but I don’t. If you’re the lawyer for the state, what it means is — you’re the lawyer for the people of the state of Illinois, and it’s your job to represent them and to help them.”

Her political career began with that attitude. Lisa Colpoys, one of Madigan’s law school classmates at Loyola University, recalls helping out on Madigan’s 1998 state senate campaign, during which Colpoys swears Madigan knocked on every door in her district. “And while she did it, she also collected clothes for the homeless. She kind of multi-tasked,” Colpoys says. “That is one small example that sort of demonstrates her passion for serving the people.”

Most people assume that she was inspired by her famous and powerful father, and she has fond memories dating back to age 10, when her mother married Mike Madigan, of spending the last three weeks of each June hanging out on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives with him (he legally adopted Lisa when she was in her 20s). “There are some memories just crystal clear in my head,” she says. “I remember watching them debate whether or not to pass the Equal Rights Amendment [in 1982], and they didn’t pass it! And I remember sitting there as a young girl thinking huh? Why not?”

These experiences, she says, “intrigued me,” but didn’t exactly inspire her to pursue a career in politics. That seed was instead planted in the mid-1980s while she was an undergrad at Georgetown University, where she had a retail job at Hats in the Belfry and an internship with the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon — the journalist-turned-lawmaker whom she calls “my favorite example of a public servant.”

“When I went to work for him, I was interested in government, but I didn’t necessarily believe that working inside government was the way to accomplish change and help people,” she says. But his office was staffed with young people, whose enthusiasm was infectious. “Everybody who worked for him had this genuine belief that they could change the world. It wasn’t just a belief that they could; they also thought that they had this obligation to try. There was just this overwhelming optimism,” she says. “Talk about getting bit by the bug!”

So it was Simon and his wife, Jean, who encouraged Madigan to run for office — not her dad. In fact, her father initially nixed her notion of running for state senate, sending her on a round of lunch meetings with prominent friends whom he pre-programmed, she feels sure, to try to dissuade her. She persisted, and her father became her most ardent supporter.

Being a member of what some pols call the “brat pack” has been both a boon and a curse for Madigan. Her father’s clout and campaign finances have paved her path, but she has had to climb uphill to overcome the automatic skepticism of colleagues who assume her name is her only asset.

Linda Hawker, the recently-retired secretary of the state senate, recalls watching the younger Madigan earn her place in the chamber through hard work, diligent study and a proper attitude toward her fellow senators. “I think she had a very, very clear understanding of her need to pay her dues, so she was very respectful of her colleagues,” Hawker says. “She went the first full year speaking very sparingly, probably only on legislation she sponsored.

“She also had a clear understanding that she had something to learn from every member,” Hawker says. “A lot of people think their constituency is back home, which is true, but to be successful, you have to have connections with the other legislators.”

That process of proving herself started all over again when Madigan ran for the post of attorney general in 2002. Just 35 at the time, her professional resume showed four years of private practice at the Chicago firm of Schnoff and Weaver, with no first-chair appearances, and zero experience as a prosecutor. Trib columnist Zorn twice published a popular joke that compared her to the gossamer TV character Ally McBeal. Nevertheless, with her dad’s help, Madigan eked out a victory with 50.4 percent of the vote.

Dan Carter, a former Itasca cop who went to law school just so he could put the bad guys away, was senior assistant AG with 14 years of service and not looking forward to having a wee slip of a girl with no prosecutorial experience ride in on her daddy’s coattails to become his new boss.

“Were the people in the criminal division concerned about that issue? Yeah,” Carter says. But she earned his respect, even though he was axed in the recent round of layoffs due to budget cuts in the AG’s office.

“She may have gotten there with some help, but she’s doing a good job because that’s her,” says Carter, who is now a felony prosecutor for Kane County. “She was very much hands-on, she cared about what was going on, she knew a lot about the cases we did, and when you got a good result you’d get an e-mail from her. I have nothing but good things to say about her, and that’s from someone who didn’t like having to leave the job.”

The guiding principles of the office: “Work hard and do the right thing,” Carter says. “And the cases we had to dismiss — that was the right thing to do, too.”

Madigan earned the respect of the defense bar when she declined to re-prosecute Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock, two men who had been framed for a 1985 double-homicide in Paris, Ill. Her office is now handling a stack of 25 homicide cases involving Jon Burge, the retired Chicago Police lieutenant whose squad sometimes used torture to coerce confessions. So far, six of the men previously convicted of murder have been freed, and five of the cases have been resolved by lower courts. Madigan has been criticized by the Cook County Board for moving too slowly on the others, but her deputy chief of staff, Cara Smith, says six cases are stalled waiting for the plaintiffs to file amended post-conviction petitions. Five other men appear headed for new evidentiary hearings.

“Some of these cases where there are allegations of coerced confessions, we’re starting from scratch with 25-year-old files and piecing together what has occurred,” Smith says. “Internally, there’s an incredible amount of discussion and deliberation about what’s the right thing to do, based on the facts of each case, the allegations in each PC [petition], and what our investigation has discovered. The goal is to seek justice, which is what we feel is happening in each one of these cases.”

Madigan’s most famous case, of course, was the one that was never heard. On Dec. 12, just three days after federal agents arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the midst of what court documents describe as “a political corruption crime spree,” Madigan filed a motion asking the Illinois Supreme Court to temporarily remove Blagojevich from office by declaring him essentially disabled.

Bob Wesley, former chairman of the Sangamon County Democrats, calls Madigan’s motion “creative” but knew it had little chance to succeed. “I think you look into your toolbox and use whatever you can to make a reasonable effort to get things done,” Wesley says. “I applaud the effort, because I think he was unfit to govern.”

Madigan, aware that she was asking the court to stretch, says she tried to craft a request that was narrow and reasonable. For example, she offered the court the alternative to simply enjoin the governor from performing specific actions mentioned in the federal criminal complaint (i.e. appointing someone to fill Obama’s vacant U.S. senate seat, acting on legislation, directing financial matters of state agencies). She also didn’t request any expert opinion on the governor’s mental fitness, though Madigan says people have asked her why she didn’t.

“Many others — and I’m probably in this camp as well — would argue that there’s something there. I’m not clinically able to diagnose, so I can’t,” she says. “I have heard the question: Why didn’t you request a psychiatric evaluation? And I’ve said because I think that would make it even less likely for the supreme court to take our motion.”

Over the next few days, Madigan appeared on numerous national news shows, explaining this unprecedented legal maneuver (a co-worker says Madigan also turned down many other media invitations). On Dec. 17, the court declined to hear the case. The governor was voted out of office Jan. 29.

“We’ve had an ensuing I think disaster,” Madigan says, citing the extra $20 million lost when the state’s credit rating dropped, affecting bond deals that could have propped up the budget. “I don’t blame this on the supreme court, because they have full discretion, but we wouldn’t necessarily be in as bad of a situation if the court would’ve been willing to grant us what I believe to be very reasonable relief.”

Recently, she discovered that state law in Connecticut requires an impeached governor to step aside and yield his or her duties to the lieutenant governor until the Senate trial is concluded. Madigan’s press officer, Robyn Zeigler, says the attorney general plans to introduce legislation during the current session to amend the Illinois Constitution to include a similar provision.

Throughout the scandal, the notion of Madigan’s potential 2010 candidacy for governor or U.S. senator draws ever more interest. Recent reports show she raised more than $1 million in the last half of 2008, while her closest competitor, Comptroller Dan Hynes, raised about $645,000. The questions have come up so many times that she has perfected the artful dodge. “Quite honestly, I’m going to do what I think is best for the state, and right now, what’s best for the state is that I focus on my job,” she says. “There may come a time when I believe that I can serve the people of the state better in another capacity, but we’re not there yet.

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