You'd think that Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who is forever being touted as one of the smartest politicians in Illinois history, would have realized long ago that Barack Obama was immensely popular and needed to be treated differently than others. Yet it wasn't until last week that Madigan finally offered a public bow to the man widely considered to be a top tier candidate for the US presidency in 2008 and who has a rock star's ability to turn grown men and women into giddy teenagers.
Instead, Madigan has publicly chafed at Obama's attempted role at party building. Madigan ran a brutally negative campaign against the Senator's hand-picked state treasurer candidate, Alexi Giannoulias, and then refused to endorse Giannoulias or even meet with him (or take his calls) after he had won the primary against Madigan's own candidate, Paul Mangieri. Madigan derisively referred to Obama as "the Messiah" last year, when asked about Obama's growing clout in the state.
Madigan has long been criticized within his party for acting too much like a House Speaker and not nearly enough like the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, a job he also holds.
Madigan initially wanted the state party chairmanship mainly to take advantage of special US Postal rates that allowed his House campaigns to save hundreds of thousands of dollars every election cycle. Unlike all the other legislative leaders, Madigan doesn't even have a House Democratic campaign committee, using the state party's committee as the sole money conduit to his candidates.
Madigan's state party also gives precious little assistance to non-House candidates other than those whom Madigan deems crucial to maintaining his superiority at the Illinois Statehouse, like the hugely expensive Illinois Supreme Court race two years ago. Party building outside the narrow confines of the House chambers has not exactly been Madigan's forte.
Obama completely soured on Madigan last year, particularly during the weirdness leading up to the Illinois State Fair, when it wasn't even certain if Madigan would show up for the annual Governor's Day event because he didn't want to sit on the "unity" stage with Giannoulias.
Sources close to the usually easy-going Obama say he has an enmity for Madigan unlike anyone else. And there have been quiet grumblings for months that Obama might back his own statewide slate in four years if Lisa Madigan tries to step up the political ladder to the governor's office. Obama and Senate President Emil Jones are closely allied, and there is little love lost between Jones and Madigan, so that's definitely adding fuel to the fire.
While last week's widely reported news that Madigan wants to move the 2008 Illinois primary up to February 5th in order to help Obama's presidential campaign was welcomed by Obama's friends as a good sign, they made it clear that those personal wounds are going to take a while to heal, and there was quite a bit of suspicion that Madigan has some as yet unknown ulterior motives for offering the proposal, which the Speaker claimed would also ensure that a diverse, Midwestern state would finally have a voice in the presidential selection process.
Still, something is happening. Not well known in political circles last week was the fact that Madigan had met with Giannoulias just before the House's swearing-in ceremony. Madigan had invited Giannoulias to the party weeks before. Madigan's staff has also been working with Giannoulias' people since the election to help with an extra $100,000 for the treasurer's office budget.
Giannoulias unexpectedly bumped into the Speaker at a Springfield restaurant the night before the party and the two men exchanged pleasantries - the first time they had spoken to each other since the '06 primary.
And Madigan went out of his way to praise Obama's "integrity" during a media availability after he was sworn in for another term.
He even struck some rare humble notes during that availability. When a reporter asked Madigan about his reputation as a great tactician, Madigan quipped, "DonÕt believe that stuff. IÕm the guy that supported Hynes." Madigan had backed Comptroller Dan Hynes against Obama in the 2004 Democratic primary.
Apparently, Madigan has learned from his mistakes. We'll just have to see if Obama ever forgives him.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com