Our View: Attorney general: Close call for Madigan
In the race for Illinois attorney general, two more opposite approaches to a political office could hardly be found.
Incumbent Democrat Lisa Madigan, 48, of Chicago, is seeking her fourth term. Challenging her is Republican Paul Schimpf, 43, recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps. He calls Waterloo in southern Illinois home. In his previous career he was the lead American attorney/adviser to Iraqi prosecutors in the 2006 trial of Saddam Hussein. He was influential in getting military guidelines in sexual assault cases changed to include victim advocates.
If consumer protection has been Madigan’s overriding priority — returning billions to the state treasury and victims of bank misbehavior, of utility rate malpractice, of identity theft, of student loan scams, of Medicaid fraud, etc. — Schimpf says government corruption is the number one threat Illinois consumers face, and he’d be a far more aggressive watchdog.
If Madigan is defending the state’s 2013 pension reform law in court, Schimpf would not, saying the law is clearly unconstitutional — “not even close” to passing muster — and he takes an oath first and foremost to the U.S. and Illinois constitutions.
If Madigan has a compromising conflict of interest with her father, Michael, serving as Speaker of the Illinois House, Schimpf says “nobody’s gotten their hooks in me,” with not even his own party ponying up much in the way of campaign support. “It makes it easy to remember my loyalties are to the people rather than to the political elites,” he says.
This is an interesting contest between two fundamentally different interpretations of the duties of the Attorney General’s Office.
First, Schimpf has a point about Madigan’s family conflict, which was troubling enough to us that it helped dissuade our endorsement of her the first two times she ran — in 2002 and 2006 — competent, confident and polished though she is. Schimpf alleges that Madigan won’t “do anything to make the Democratic Party” — the Illinois version of which is chaired by her father — “look bad,” which includes confronting an Obama administration that has let veterans down, for instance. That’s not entirely fair — she initiated the investigation into former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s shenanigans (though arguably his transgressions were so brazen that his own party couldn’t stomach them). But in fact the Attorney General’s Office has taken to the sidelines on multiple questionable activities of late, including the alleged Chicago Metra patronage scandal in which her father is a central character, patronage hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation, and Gov. Pat Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, the 2010 anti-violence program now under criminal investigation.
In her defense, Madigan argues that the statutory job description is to serve “primarily as the state’s civil lawyer,” that Illinois’ 102 state’s attorneys have far more tools to work with as frontline criminal prosecutors — she can’t convene a grand jury, for instance — that when she has been in possession of incriminating evidence she has worked in concert with the U.S. attorney, who has done his job. It’s not as if Illinoisans haven’t witnessed more than a few politicians marching off to prison. While Schimpf characterizes that stance as “outsourcing anti-corruption efforts to the feds,” even he concedes that practice and that culture preceded Madigan. In any case, it is inconsistent with Madigan’s own promise when she first sought this office to take “an active, hands-on role in cleaning up government,” even if it meant being at odds with her father. That just hasn’t happened, says Schimpf.
The latter makes a compelling case. He is no slouch. He takes thoughtful, non-partisan, non-ideological approaches to some issues, such as environmental law, important where the likes of fracking and climate change are concerned. We’re confident he’d be his own man. His candidacy, insofar as this endorsement, is a tempting one.
Where we differ with him is on the 2013 pension law, where he’d have the state “hire other counsel” to argue its case. Even if he’s correct about its questionable constitutional foundation, the attorney general is the state’s legal counsel. Even the guilty are entitled to a defense, which also fulfills another critical constitutional promise. Schimpf says he has no intention of using the office to second-guess the Legislature or the governor, but arguably his position on this subject would do exactly that. Pragmatically, if the state loses the pension lawsuit, Illinois’ budget dam breaks, which would be exceedingly consumer and taxpayer unfriendly. It’s a game changer. Beyond that, we do wonder if his personal beliefs on some social issues — like his opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance — would interfere with his enforcement of the law. He says not, states “that ship has sailed,” but then hedges on religious freedom grounds.
Madigan’s consumer protection efforts have been exceptional, her office has paid for itself and then some on behalf of some of the states’ most vulnerable, she’s been an unwavering defender of government transparency through the state’s Freedom of Information Act. It’s a close call for us, but Lisa Madigan is endorsed.