Ill. gov candidate runs as fresh face, despite ties to political machine

Illinois State Rep. Daniel Biss positioned himself as a fresh face Monday as he jumped into the Democratic primary for the state’s 2018 gubernatorial election. But his ties to the state House’s powerful speaker show the difficulties for candidates looking to distance themselves from the establishment in a state long dominated by political machines. 

Launching his campaign, Biss promised to move the state away from the “billionaires and machine politicians,” adding that House Speaker Michael Madigan, the dean of Illinois Democratic politics, has “been there too long.” 

“We need to take our system back from the billionaires and the machine politicians whose voices are heard while the rest of us have been locked out,” Biss said in a Facebook Live video kicking off his bid. 

But Biss, like most Illinois Democrats and his gubernatorial primary rivals, has benefitted from a lot of money from Madigan and those in his orbit. 


And Biss led the Illinois-based super PAC “Leading Illinois for Tomorrow,” or LIFT, last year, which filled its coffers with millions from Madigan and his top allies. 

The group started in September, two months before Election Day. In that short amount of time, it raised and ultimately spent $10 million hammering current Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner by tying him to then-Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE, who lost the state by nearly 20 percentage points. 

Biss told The Hill on Friday that the PAC “was a completely unified Democratic effort because the Democratic Party was under attack.” He added that his work for the PAC is consistent with his values as a “loyal Democrat who has been usually critical of the Speaker as a Democrat in this legislature.” 

“I’m a lifelong progressive Democrat and I fight for Democratic values and candidates, but I also fight to reform the Democratic Party,” Biss told The Hill in an interview Friday. 

“I don’t just think those things can coexist, they have to coexist.” 

The super PAC’s contributors list doubles as a who’s who of donors in Madigan’s circle, including the speaker himself. Madigan has been the state House speaker since 1983 and also serves as the state party chair, so he has his fingers on the pulse of all things Democratic in the Land of Lincoln. 

Madigan’s campaign committee gave the group $500,000, the largest donation from his campaign to a political organization aside from the state Democratic Party, according to data compiled by The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The campaign committee for Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, speaker’s daughter, gave another $150,000. 

A host of other well-connected Democrats are also on the group’s donor list too. 

There’s the $10,000 donation from Roger Kiley, Madigan’s former law partner, according to the Chicago Tribune, and the former chief of staff to iconic Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Then there’s a $1.5 million check from Democratic mega-donor Fred Eychaner, as well as two $10,000 checks from Cook County assessor Joe Berrios and his campaign account. Both Eychaner and Barrios are considered reliable Madigan allies.  

And the super PAC’s coffers were also filled with a slew of donations from unions and union-backed groups, many of whom have long served as allies to Madigan and other Democrats over the years. 

For a state-level super PAC, even one targeting a presidential candidate, LIFT punched far above its weight. 

It made a $2.9 million ad buy against Trump in late October, an individual anti-Trump buy larger than one made by any other group except Priorities USA, according to data synthesized by ProPublica. 

Priorities USA, the primary outside group supporting Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE’s presidential bid, spent more than $190 million in 2016. 

For many Illinois Democrats, the opportunity to tie Trump around Rauner’s neck was likely an intriguing proposition. It could help dent Republican favorability statewide in the 2016 election while also softening up Rauner before the pivotal 2018 governor’s race. 

But raising $10 million in six weeks would have been nearly impossible for a state senator without help from high places — even a state senator like Biss, who is well-respected in Democratic circle. 

“There is no question that [Biss] was working hand-in-glove with Madigan’s allies,” one Illinois source with knowledge of conversations between the two parties told The Hill. 

Biss told The Hill in December that Madigan was “walled off from the committee’s message because of his role with the Democratic Party.”

That division was a nod to federal and state super PAC laws that don’t allow candidates to coordinate spending. But those laws don’t bar a politician from soliciting donations for a group not spending in their race. 

On Friday, he noted that Madigan hadn’t supported him in 2010, when he ran for state legislature and added that one of his first bills once he won was in support of term limits. 

“The Democratic Party was under attack, its values and priorities were under attack, so people were united,” Biss said about LIFT’s aims. 

One Illinois Democratic operative told The Hill that while any observer of state politics could see that LIFT was a “Madigan joint,” he believes it’s unlikely any Democrat would hold the connection against Biss, even though he has positioned himself as the candidate who will bring a new direction to the state government. 

Some of Biss’s primary opponents also contributed to LIFT, making attacks on the super PAC even less likely during the primary.

Chris Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, donated $50,000 and has since declared his own gubernatorial bid that will put him. And billionaire J.B. Pritzker, who is weighing an entry in the race, gave the PAC $350,000, on top of a $550,000 donation from Jabodon PT Company, a company linked to his family.  

“Would anyone be able to say Biss is unclean because of his work on LIFT? I don’t think that would work,” the Democrat said.

“The notion that he was involved in a group that was dumping on Trump and Rauner, that’s going to play well in a Democratic primary,.”

The strategist noted that LIFT appeared to be a “classic case of no permanent friends, no permanent allies.” But he added that it’s unlikely that Biss will receive the same significant monetary support in a crowded Democratic primary. 

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“I’ll be very interested to compare how much LIFT was able to raised as opposed to how much money Biss will be able to raise,” the strategist said, noting the deep pockets of both Kennedy and Pritzker.   

Biss admitted during his Monday announcement that he may not have the same resources as his rivals, but dug in on his populist pitch.   

“I’m not the millionaire or billionaire in the race, but I think Illinois is facing a moment where what we need more than anything is a movement of people,” he said.  

“I’m running for governor to be a part of that movement.”