U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) briefly speaks to reporters after the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association brunch in Springfield Wednesday. [Hannah Meisel/The Daily Line]

While U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) was billed as keynote speaker for Wednesday morning’s annual Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association brunch in Springfield, it was Gov. JB Pritzker who got the crowd of Democratic party faithful revved up as he promised a “blue tsunami” to continue last year’s “Blue Wave” that swept Democrats into office at all levels of government in November in a rebuke of President Donald Trump and former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

As more than 2,100 Democrats milled about the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel and Convention Center early Wednesday, many bought T-shirts for sale that proclaimed “Illinois Democrats get BIG things done,” a riff on Pritzker’s campaign promises to “Think Big,” and a continuation of his branding for Democrats’ legislative wins listed on the back of the $25 shirt. 

Wednesday’s featured speakers boasted of the legislative victories, which include what they claim is the state’s first on-time and balanced budget in years, a $45 billion infrastructure plan, massive gambling expansion — including legalizing sports betting — recreational marijuana, a $15 minimum wage by 2025 and the Reproductive Health Act.

Pelosi, whose lengthy remarks largely focused on Trump and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), congratulated Pritzker, saying “you get big things done,” and called him a “model to the nation.” The California Democrat noted that she’d been friends with Pritzker’s mother, Sue Pritzker, when the governor was growing up in the Bay Area, and said it brought “tears to my eyes to see him…command the issues” in Illinois.

Merchandise for sale at the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association brunch in Springfield Wednesday boasted Democratic legislative accomplishments from lawmakers’ Spring session. [Hannah Meisel/The Daily Line]

Pritzker praised Pelosi for her navigation of Washington as Speaker of the House and in dealing with Trump.

“I know I speak for everyone when I say thank God we didn’t send a man to do a woman’s job,” Pritzker said.

Pelosi praised the “persistent, bold experimentation” coming out of Illinois, saying that here and elsewhere, she sees evidence that “a mainstream agenda can also be a progressive agenda.” She referred to McConnell as “Moscow Mitch,” and used his own branding — describing himself as the “Grim Reaper” — against him.

“Since I’m in Springfield I’ll just quote a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln,” Pelosi told the crowd. “He said, ‘Public sentiment is everything.’ With it, you can accomplish almost anything, without it practically nothing.”

One Democrat who intimately understands public sentiment is House Speaker Mike Madigan, who is even more unpopular in his own state than Pelosi is, according to recent polling data. Madigan, who has mostly stayed in the shadows for Pritzker’s first year in office after being extremely visible for four years fighting Rauner, spoke for only three minutes Wednesday morning before departing out the back door.

Gov. JB Pritzker addresses the crowd on the Director’s Lawn at the Illinois State Fairgrounds on Wednesday, Democrats’ first Governor’s Day since 2014. [Hannah Meisel/The Daily Line]

Though some Republicans last year acknowledged that a constant message of blaming Madigan may no longer be a winning one, a coalition formed to stop one of Pritzker’s top priorities — implementing a graduated income tax in Illinois via a constitutional amendment — put Madigan in the center of its branding Wednesday.

Greg Baise, the former head of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and current chair of Ideas Illinois, a 501(c)4 group dedicated to defeating what Pritzker has branded as the “Fair Tax,” announced a political action committee dedicated to the cause, dubbed the “Vote No on Blank Check Committee.” 

The committee’s logo features the longtime House Speaker’s face, and polling released this Spring from Baise-connected We Ask America and commissioned by Ideas Illinois, found Madigan sits at an 18 percent favorability rating. A March poll from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University didn’t see Madigan faring much better, with only a 20 percent job approval rating.

Madigan, who is also the chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, conducted what he jokingly called a “public opinion poll” gauged by the friendly crowd’s reaction.

“Are you happy about the fact that this year Illinois has a full-year budget, on time and balanced?” Madigan asked, with the crowd cheering for that and other Democratic victories, including a contract negotiated for approximately 80,000 state workers represented by AFSCME Council 31 — their first since 2015.

“All these things happened because there was a change in the occupant of the governor’s office in Illinois,” Madigan said. “We came together and decided that a budget impasse that lasted two and a half years was not acceptable…and we gathered together and we rallied, we removed Rauner from office and installed our governor, JB Pritzker.”

House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) tells the crowd that big Democratic wins were all made possible by removing former Gov. Bruce Rauner from office and “installing our governor, JB Pritzker.” [Hannah Meisel/The Daily Line]

After telling the crowd to enjoy their day, Madigan left the building without any chance of being intercepted by reporters. Earlier this summer, the Tribune reported on a series of FBI raids at the homes and offices of some of the speaker’s closest allies, apparently in connection with checks written to former Madigan political staffer Kevin Quinn

Madigan fired Quinn last year as campaign worker Alaina Hampton went public with her accusations that Quinn had harassed her in pursuit of a romantic relationship, and that Hampton had not been protected from his advances. 

Madigan also dodged potential questions about State Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park), who two weeks ago was indicted on 41 charges related to having been a “ghost payroller” for the Teamsters Joint Council 25 for the first three years he served in the Senate. 

Cullerton’s arraignment, originally scheduled for Wednesday, was moved to Friday morning at the Dirksen Federal Court building in Chicago. 

Cullerton’s caucus leader, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who is a distant cousin of the indicted politician, told reporters again Wednesday that Cullerton is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Cullerton was removed from his chairmanship of the Senate’s Labor Committee, but was given another chairmanship, which lets him keep a $10,000 bump in his legislative pay.

“It is what it is and he’s got to face the charges,” Senate President Cullerton said Wednesday. 

Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who served in the Senate with Cullerton, declined to speculate on whether it’s appropriate for Cullerton to continue serving while facing 41 counts, many of which are labeled as embezzlement of nearly $275,000 from the union over three years.

“I have nothing to say about that particular case,” Raoul told The Daily Line. “I am a former member of the General Assembly. I now serve in a role as a law enforcement officer for the state, so I would reserve any comment, as any responsible law enforcement officer would do.”

Not many present at Wednesday’s festivities at the county chairs’ brunch or out on the Director’s Lawn at the state fairgrounds volunteered to speak on the record about any sort of pall the FBI investigations have cast over the Democratic Party as the party tries to repeat wins in 2020.

One standout freshman House Democrat, State Rep. Joyce Mason (D-Gurnee), was featured in a video screened at Wednesday’s brunch about her surprise victory over former State Rep. Sheri Jesiel (R-Winthrop Harbor) in November. 

Mason, who ran on a platform that included protecting abortion access in Illinois, said she was cognizant of the bigger picture hanging over the collective head of the Democratic Party in Illinois, but said it hasn’t come up while talking with constituents this summer while knocking on doors, as directed by Madigan.

“On one hand, it feels really far away because I’m such a newcomer,” Mason told The Daily Line. “It’s not like I’m hanging out with those guys, so it seems very far away. On the other hand, I’m focusing on everything we’re working on…and you know, I just try to let it play out and see what happens. I’ve heard stuff like, ‘Oh, people just make stuff up, it’s going to go away’ [or] ‘it’s not going to go away.’ Regardless of that, I just keep working for my hometown and my district. It’s one of those things, I guess.”

Mason was one of the female freshman House Democrats who State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) and others have repeatedly given credit to as the driving force behind the passage of the Reproductive Health Act in late May, even after the speaker had put a brick on the bill. 

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