Tuesday night, College Republicans screened Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics in Fisk Hall. The 60-minute film critiques Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan for his immense power as the longest-serving speaker in Illinois history and his use of patronage politics. While the film gives a reasoned critique of Madigan’s power, its connection to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, Madigan’s bitter rival, raised some eyebrows.
Illinois Policy Action, an arm of the Illinois Policy Institute with close ties to Rauner, backed the making of this film. I walked into the screening worried that this connection would taint the film, but to my surprise, the film stays away from attacking Madigan’s political beliefs and focuses instead on legitimately troublesome aspects of Madigan’s political machine.
However, the film’s bias reveals itself in its omissions of Rauner criticism. When discussing the current budget crisis, Rauner is barely mentioned. The Democrats’ attacks of the current governor also go unaddressed. The Huffington Post reported that Rauner has been accused of shady politics, which, again, went unaddressed in the flim, and that the featured interview subjects were unaware of the pro-Rauner link. As an example of Madigan's ruthlessness, Rod Blagojevich’s brother appears on-screen to discuss Madigan’s fight with Blagojevich and Blagojevich's ensuing removal from office, because Blagojevich had tried to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
Instead of focusing on Rauner's misdeeds, the film highlights Madigan's shady actions. The film starts by highlighting the Metra scandal, in which Madigan allegedly tried to secure Metra jobs for two of his contributors. While Madigan left the scandal unfazed, the investigation revealed a history of patronage politics. Madigan was securing jobs for his donors in government so they could make money off of taxpayer money in exchange for their continued support of Madigan. This was just the tip of the iceberg for the corrupt practices that the film alleges Madigan took part in. Madigan redistricted the state to favor Democrats, his law firm benefited from helping businesses through the state’s complex tax code and his Rules Committee stopped many bills with which he disagreed.
What scared me the most was how he handled opposition in his own party. According to the film, Madigan used underhanded methods to paint his primary opponent as a criminal and allegedly planted two other fake candidates to split the Hispanic vote in his district.
I also had issues with the film stylistically. I lost count of all of the roaming shots of Chicago to symbolize the wide reach of Madigan’s power. The film also uses pictures of Madigan in order to make him look like a movie villain, which is reinforced by the mocking of his meticulous nature and obsessive eating habits. I found this unnecessary and mean-spirited. All of these are classic tricks of political ads – signs that the film did not come from an objective source.
David Donnelly, the treasurer of the College Republicans, said he liked the film and believed it gave a balanced attack of Madigan, but admitted that it probably omitted some of his positive aspects.
“It didn’t really go into specific good things he did over the time. I’m sure he had to have had a couple of successes," Donnelly said. "But it’s point was to be a little critical. Anytime you hear of a politician with that type of power for that long and all the connections the movie demonstrated, it’s going to cause more of a bad feeling than a good one at the end.”
Donnelly said he believes that while other factors play a role in Illinois’ current state, Madigan has been a constant presence that needs to be taken out of power. However, he thinks that Illinois’ crooked system needs more than a change in the majority party.
“If they just switched and they continued the status quo, I don’t think the system would change at all," he said. "This is going be fixed by more legislation and people coming together to fix it, not just a change in the party.”
Editor's note: a previous version of this story said the film did not mention why Rod Blagojevich was removed from office. This was incorrect – the movie did mention why: he tried to sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. NBN regrets this error, and made the change at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 2.