Citizens United Meets Madigan, The Movie

Oct 17, 2016

Madigan, the mascot.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

The Girl on the Train. Suicide Squad. Bridget Jones's Baby.  

These are the movies showing now at a theater near you.

Throughout October, a handful of theaters are taking one night each to screen a smaller-budget film with much narrower appeal, starring Michael Madigan. Amanda Vinicky went to a screening last week at the Legacy Theater in Springfield.

(This post has been updated to reflect that a parody of the film is back online)


First, the obvious, no, there's no breakout indie film star named Michael Madigan; this is a movie about the Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Madigan, the longest-serving House Speaker in the nation (he's been the Illinois House Speaker for more than three decades, with just a single two-year interruption).

But Madigan himself has nothing to do with it.

That's what you really need to know, off the bat.

The project was funded by the Illinois Policy Institute's advocacy wing, Illinois Policy Action.

The Policy Institute describes itself as an "independent organization generating public policy solutions aimed at promoting personal freedom and prosperity in Illinois."

Others call it right-wing think-tank. Critics have been prone to use much harsher words.

Whatever you think of the Policy Institute this much has become clear: It, and its advocacy arm, have money to spend (or burn, depending on your perspective).

Like, on its new movie: "Madigan: Power, Privilege, Politics."

Illinois Policy Action is classified as a social welfare group, a variety of a non-profit. Which means two things:

-by law, it can't get involved in partisan politics

-by law, it doesn't have to disclose its funders.

So there's no way to tell who is financing the organization, let alone the film.

There's no way to tell how much making the movie cost. But it clearly wasn't cheap: Emergent Order, an Austin-based "creative agency specializing in innovative branded content campaigns" was hired to actually make the movie, though one of the Institute's own employees, Austin Berg, wrote it. The production values are high. The camera work and the editing are slick.

Plus like an infomercial or super long campaign ad, the group is paying to air the hour-long movie on TV stations throughout central and southern Illinois. The Federal Communications Commission doesn't have the details up, but that alone will cost tens of thousands of dollars.

And though the IPI calls it a “documentary” it has also been described as political propaganda.

A screening of "Madigan: Power, Privilege, Politics" as Springfield's Legacy Theater on Oct. 12.
Credit Amanda Vinicky

A sampling of quotes, in trailer's montage of interviews with lawmakers, political scientists, and the like: 

-“Mike Madigan is at the peak of power in the state of Illinois." 

-"He can control whether you get your legislation passed or not."

"What we have in Illinois is essentially machine politics. And Michael Madigan is the king of that machine."

The film posits a narrative of Madigan as a shrewd, sinister, political mastermind, who decides other politicians' fates. It even seems to pin the downfall of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Madigan, never mind that Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence for criminal acts of his own doing.

There's footage from press conferences and interviews Madigan's given throughout the years. Clips of journalists on TV programs discussing the Speaker. Photos of Madigan, back when his hair was black instead of gray, from when he first became a State Representative in 1970.Anecdotes about Madigan's peculiarities, like his habit of eating a sliced apple every afternoon.

A portion of the film is devoted to raising questions about the ethics behind Madigan's other job, as a property tax attorney. A sweeping graphic of Chicago highlights all of the properties Madigan's law firm has helped to get lower tax bills. Gov. Rauner has accused Madigan of having a “conflict of interest” because his firm appeals Cook County property tax assessments; Madigan has said he follows a code of conduct, and clients are never promised state benefits.

Madigan foes get a lot of air-time in the movie, be they former Republican legislators, or his failed primary opponent, consultant Jason Gonzales. State Rep. Ken Dunkin, a Democrat who fell from the good graces of many fellow party members after he sided with Gov. Bruce Rauner on a key union vote, is also featured prominently. Dunkin and a Madigan-backed candidate went head to head in an expensive March primary, and Dunkin lost.

It's not all negative.

There's a sweet-seeming, elderly woman from Madigan's southside Chicago district who lavishes praise on Madigan as a caring family man, and friendly neighbor. Madigan is described as attentive, detail-oriented, thorough.

And though the whiff of nepotism accusations are strong, Madigan's daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is praised by featured pundits as someone who'd make a wonderful governor of Illinois.

For Kristina Rasmussen, the President of Illinois Policy Action, that's proof that the movie wasn't meant as a “hit piece.”

“You know when Madigan does the right thing at the Statehouse, like passing criminal justice reform, we're the first to say 'good job.' Because again it's about the policies," she said. "This is a documentary that takes an honest look at a fascinating man's life. Love him or hate him, he's got an interesting story to tell and when we first thought of this idea, we thought 'why hasn't someone done this already?' I mean he may be one of the most fascinating figures in state political history, of all 50 states. This is a man worth learning more about and that's exactly what we did. And I mean the interviews we got, it's not just a bunch of Republicans sitting around talking, grousing, about Madigan. You have major democratic figures in the state weighing in, giving their honest opinion and I think they got a fair shot to say their point of view in this film.”

There has been other controversies about the film.

For example, Capitol Fax blogger Rich Miller says he wasn't told the movie was affiliated with the Illinois Policy Institute when he agreed to be interviewed for it.

Your eyebrows also may raise when the screen is filled by a man whose face is obscured by shadows and whose voice is digitally manipulated. It's an actor, hired to repeat portions of an interview with an evidently disenchanted member of Madigan's patronage army, whose identify is concealed, the filmmakers say, for fear of retribution.

That all heightened suspicion of the organizations' motives ... suspicion that was already high given that Gov. Rauner has painted Madigan as Illinois governments' evil incarnate and the Institute acts in lockstep with Rauner.

Suspicion, or something like it, gave rise to this Internet parody video the day the real movie premiered:

"From the same people who brought you fake newspapers, fake radio networks and fake policy institutes, comes the fake document Gov. Rauner Fake says he didn't pay for," the parody begins, and then goes on to say the film is "really a love story" because Rauner wants to be Madigan. "Don't miss the sausage party of the season, even though it's totally fake."

Who is behind the “FAKE Illinois Policy” video, twitter and email accounts is a mystery. It's clear someone (presumably Illinois Policy Action) didn't find the mockumentary funny though, as it was swiftly removed from the online video platform Vimeo. 

Vimeo later reversed its decision, and in finding that the clip is protected under fair use and parody laws, it's back up, and available for public viewing.

For a self-described political junkie Jeff Hutton, the Madigan movie - the real thing - got it right.

"Well I think it's a pretty fair depiction of him," Hutton said. "Some of the stuff he's [pulled is pretty shady, but by and large he's an old-style Democratic politician. He takes care of his people. And if he hoses everybody else … " Hutton attended the movie premier in Springfield. Like other movie-goers, he was offered popcorn in a black box made specially for the occasion, as the sides featured a drawing of Madigan, wearing a crown. Black T-shirts and plastic cups with a bright image of “King Madigan” were available too. And a giant-headed Madigan mascot walked around and posed for photos.

Hutton's a retired state employee, who says he spent about 35 years reviewing water documents and such for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Hutton says he and other government workers were certainly aware of Madigan, though he says he didn't personally witness patronage employees at the EPA.

"I think the average state employees considers the politicians to be a bunch of weasels," he said.

"All of them?" I asked.

“Pretty much," Hutton said. "Yeah. They're taking care of themselves and that's just how it operates.”

Hutton says if the film was meant as anti-Madigan propaganda, the producers didn't do a very good job.

“Cause I thought it was pretty even-handed, really. They didn't show him to be a demon or anything. Like I said, he's an old-style, Democratic politician.

In some instances, Hutton says Madigan came off well.

"He's obviously very smart. And he takes care of his people. I mean loyalty counts a lot, in my world," he said. "I'm a Boy Scout leader. That's important. And you know the fact that he, you know, he's incredibly competent. Whether you like him or don't like him, he's a sharp guy who does his job and knows how to do it.

Hutton says he likes Rauner, but he's like to see the Governor and the Speaker "sit down and cut each other some slack. There are things that need to be done. Tort reform is a big one. And you know I'd like to see 'em work together. I don't know if they're capable of doing that. The whole country is so polarized. Not just Illinois but the whole country. I don't know if there's any meaning in the common ground anymore.”

That polarization has been painfully obvious this election cycle, in both the country and in Illinois, where Rauner and his allies (including people and groups with ties to the Illinois Policy Institute) are for the first set of legislative elections in recent memory are easily out-spending Democrats, by putting record millions of dollars into trying to wrest Madigan's supermajority from him.

Early voting was already ongoing in Illinois when the Illinois Policy Action movie premiered, and as the group pays to show its movie on TV stations, Illinois voters will be able to continue to vote in a smattering of contests that are viewed as proxy wars between Rauner and Madigan.

The movie will also be available online at some point, according to Rasmussen.

“What's new (about the documentary) is that it tells the whole story," she said. "It pieces together all of the different aspects - his rise to power and what he's used that for. So it gives people a global point of view that maybe folks didn't have before.”

That her organization made the movie is in itself a sign of a new era in sophisticated, expensive, modern campaigning and messaging.

The Citizens United ruling paved the way for the rise of superPACs and so-called social welfare groups, like the Illinois Policy Institute's advocacy wing, and they've both steadily proliferated.

Now, Citizens United is shorthand for the U.S. Supreme Court decision that lifted restrictions on what businesses and unions could spend on campaigns. But the case stems from a nonprofit corporation, Citizens United , which showed its 90-minute anti-Hillary Clinton documentary in theaters in 2008, and then wanted to make it available in voters' homes as a video-on-demand. It was that that eventually resulted in the landmark campaign finance decision.

Rasmussen says she believes this is the first time a political documentary like this has been done on the state level.

Already, she says people are pitching ideas for future documentaries.