Generation Gap: More than two decades separate the two Democratic candidates for attorney general

Jan 1, 2002

In 1967, John Schmidt graduated from law school into a nation rocked by the civil rights movement and increasingly divided by a war, two issues which would soon occupy a good deal of the newly minted attorney’s energy. 

Lisa Madigan, too, would earn her law degree and wade into the big social and political issues of her time, but not for a while. For her, 1967 was the year she turned 1.

Schmidt, a 58-year-old former U.S. Justice Department official, and Madigan, a 35-year-old state senator, will face off March 19 for the Demo-cratic nomination for Illinois attorney general. On the surface, their contest is about priorities, about the proper role of the states in the post-September 11 world and about experience versus energy. 

On another, more basic level, it’s about the 23 years — a full generation — that separate these two candidates. This reality could mean the difference between an attorney general focused on that office’s role as the state’s top law enforcer, and one who embraces its role as legal activist and advocate. 

This race highlights a generational theme that’s emerged this campaign season. Madigan is one of several unusually young Democrats running for statewide office in 2002. In fact, depending on what happens in the March primaries, the Democrats could go into the fall general election campaign with one of the youngest statewide slates in Illinois history. 

While both of these candidates downplay the generational issue, it’s clear that it largely defines the tone of their campaigns. It can be seen in Schmidt’s frequent use of the word “experience’’ and in Madigan’s insistence that the word should be defined by more than just years.

“I think it’s a fake issue. It’s not how old you are, it’s what you’ve done with your life,’’ says Madigan. She likes to point out that she is 10 years older than the constitutionally required age to run for attorney general, and that she has won an election, something her opponent has never done. 

“I don’t think 35 is young. I’m old enough to run for president.’’ 

But Madigan also likes to talk about the “immense energy’’ young candidates bring to politics, as demonstrated by “the Bill Clintons and John Kennedys of this world.’’ She’s fond of that most Kennedyesque of words — “vigor’’ — and the optimistic, activist brand of politics it evokes. 

“Certainly, young candidates have an advantage in that we have a lot of energy,’’ says Madigan. “I’ve been a teacher, I have worked with police, I’m a lawyer, I’m in the Senate. I have an immense amount of energy in whatever I do.’’ 

Schmidt, too, dismisses the age issue as irrelevant, while subtly embracing it. His campaign is thick with reminders that, while his opponent may invoke Kennedy’s youthful image, it was Schmidt who was actually studying law during Kennedy’s presidency. 

“The country had never seemed more energized and committed to strong values of public service’’ in those days, says Schmidt, recalling how urgently people craved smart, experienced leadership. “It’s even more true now [since the terrorist attacks of September 11]. Over and over again I hear people say we need someone with experience and qualifications in the office.’’ 

From these widely different perspectives, they seek an office that, as much as any in state government, can be forged and tempered by its occupant.

The Illinois Constitution outlines the role of the attorney general in a single sentence, defining it simply as “the legal officer of the state.’’ At its most basic, the office is responsible for prosecuting violations of state law, defending Illinois employees and statutes in court, and suing on behalf of the state. 

But the office has evolved to become one of state government’s bully pulpits, if only because the occupant can focus public attention on specific issues by taking them up in court.

Enforcement of environmental protection regulations became one of the office’s prime duties under Attorney General William Scott in the 1970s. 

In the 1980s, Neil Hartigan made a crusade out of protecting the disabled and the elderly from abuse in state nursing homes. Former Democratic Attorney General Roland Burris and incumbent Republican Jim Ryan (both running for governor) have put consumer protection on the front burner, routinely suing businesses for defrauding Illinoisans. Public health issues — most notably, the state’s involvement in the national tobacco company settlement — also have become part of the job. Schmidt and Madigan say they would continue focusing on those issues. 

Before they even come into play, though, Schmidt and Madigan both will have to deal with two more immediate ones: Madigan’s age, and her family.

Republicans, eager to control the double-edge sword that is the age issue, already are peddling the notion that Madigan and some of her fellow Democratic candidates are too inexperienced for these serious times, and that they’re on the ballot mainly because of family connections to more experienced politicians. They’ve tagged it the “All My Children’’ ticket.

Madigan is the daughter of Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan. Incumbent state Comptroller Daniel Hynes, 33, is the son of former state Senate president and Cook County Assessor Tom Hynes. U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, 45, one of the party’s leading gubernatorial candidates, is the son-in-law of powerful Chicago Alderman Dick Mell. And, seeking the Democratic nomination for state treasurer is state Rep. Thomas Dart, a 39-year-old Chicagoan who is the son of William Dart, Richard J. Daley’s chief corporation counsel.

“[It’s] the party of nepotism,’’ state GOP chairman Lee Daniels said last month, echoing what has become a standard Republican line. “You have to be related to a powerhouse in the Democratic Party to run.’’

Schmidt himself has quipped darkly about the challenges of running against the daughter of the party’s chairman — who already has won the state party’s official endorsement. When campaign finance reports are filed by the end of January, there’s little doubt that Schmidt’s campaign, along with the bulk of the state’s political media, will be checking Lisa Madigan’s money closely for any evidence of her father’s fingerprints.

“I don’t think anyone is surprised that the daughter of the state party chairman can pack a platform with elected party leaders,’’ Schmidt said last month after Madigan made her candidacy announcement while flanked by Democratic Party elders from across the state, including former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a southern Illinoisan, who is her campaign chairman. “I don’t think this election is going to be about who you’re related to.”

The truth is, though, family connections theoretically can work well for candidates, at least in party primaries. The party faithful, who vote in primaries, like dynasties, goes the thinking. However, as Adlai Stevenson III learned in the 1980s, that advantage can vanish in the general election.

It is a line Madigan has had to walk carefully. Her comments on her lineage have ranged from dismissive (“I have an independent record from my father. This is my desire and ambition, not his,” she said in early November), to embracing (“I’m very proud that my last name is Madigan,” she told reporters in Springfield last month. “I’m very proud to be part of a family that has such a tradition of public service”).

As for age, there isn’t, obviously, anything Madigan or Schmidt can do about that particular issue, except to make the most of the hands that are dealt to them.

“[It’s] all about how you play it,’’ says Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “I think it’s incumbent on the person who is unusual to take advantage of that, to show they’ve got a lot vigor — play touch football on the White House lawn or whatever.’’ 

Perhaps the most controversial role for the attorney general in recent years has been the responsibility in death penalty cases. But on that issue, as on many others, there isn’t much distance between the two Democratic candidates.

The office is required under Illinois law to ask the courts to set execution dates for condemned inmates. But incumbent Republican Jim Ryan hasn’t done that since Gov. George Ryan imposed his death penalty moratorium in January 2000 in the wake of revelations that 13 people have been improperly sent to Death Row in recent years.

Jim Ryan (who isn’t related to the governor) has said he supports the moratorium, pending a full review of the system. Schmidt and Madigan both support the death penalty but favor keeping the moratorium in place until the pending review is complete. 

In fact, beyond age, it’s hard to find stark differences between these two Democrats. Most of the contrasts center on the approach and philosophy they say they would bring to the post. It’s a battle of nuance, one that hints at Schmidt’s Ivy League legal training in the 1960s and at Madigan’s social work in the violent streets of South Africa and Chicago in the 1980s. 

“People are really looking for somebody to be an activist and an advocate in the role of attorney general. That’s become very clear,’’ Madigan says. 

She says the office should go beyond enforcing environmental and consumer protection laws that are already on the books and become an advocate for change in those and other causes.

The next attorney general, she says, “must have the foresight and imagination to innovate.’’ She says she “absolutely’’ believes the job entails lobbying the legislature and the public on issues — and not just on tougher criminal statutes and longer sentences.

In her December campaign kickoff, for example, she announced that, if elected, she would appoint a special “labor liaison’’ to focus specifically on worker safety, sexual harassment and other labor issues. She also is proposing special initiatives under the office to address neglect and abuse in nursing homes, bureaucratic snafus like the recent breakdown in the state’s system of disbursing child support checks, and creation of a “Bureau of Privacy Protection’’ to focus on identity theft and credit fraud. 

Schmidt says law enforcement, and not advocacy, is the office’s prime duty, especially since September 11. He has said he will set up a “Statewide Anti-Terrorist Working Group,’’ comprised of state and local law enforcement officials, to meet regularly and exchange information about readiness for terrorist attacks. He also has said he would convene a statewide grand jury and work with local prosecutors and police to go after gangs.

Schmidt’s cops-and-courts approach to the office is consistent with his background. He was President Bill Clinton’s third-ranking official at the Justice Department. As Associate Attorney General of the United States from 1994 through 1997, he led federal cases in civil rights enforcement, environmental law and anti-trust prosecutions, including the record $100 million agricultural price-fixing fine against Archer Daniels Midland Co. of Decatur. Schmidt is now a partner at Chicago’s Mayer Brown & Platt law firm and a visiting scholar at Northwestern University School of Law. 

Lisa Madigan’s experience is more of the street-level variety. After graduating from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., at 21, she went to South Africa to teach black Catholic school students. There was a teacher shortage, partly because the country was still under apartheid and white South Africans weren’t allowed to teach in black schools. She spent a year there, teaching English, math and other subjects and hearing of violent deaths in her students’ families “every other week.’’ 

Madigan returned to Chicago and joined a program at Wright College that was a precursor to the “community policing’’ movement aimed at fostering cooperation between police and the communities they protect. She worked with police and families in the Austin area, one of Chicago’s roughest. Upon graduating from Loyola University Law School, Madigan joined the Chicago firm of Sachnoff & Weaver, specializing in employment discrimination law. 

The differences in focus between Madigan and Schmidt were clear from the time the race started in early December. In her candidacy announcement in Springfield, Madigan vowed to “bring every tool to the job of protecting our citizens, and come up with a few new ones.’’ 

She harkens repeatedly to her experiences in Chicago with “community policing.’’ 

“I believe law enforcement is most effective when it works together with the community,’’ Madigan says. “I know how to get communities involved in the fight against crime.’’ 

Schmidt says advocacy should take a backseat to straightforward enforcement of the statutes. “The people of Illinois don’t just want advocacy for more environmental laws; they want [prosecutors] to enforce the laws [that exist] against polluters,’’ says Schmidt. “They don’t just want advocacy of safer neighborhoods; they want tough action against gang violence.” 

“Community policing is important,’’ Schmidt adds, “but that kind of ‘law enforcement’ is not a substitute for law enforcement.’’ 

The campaign between Schmidt and Madigan has been civil, in part because their views on major political issues are so similar. But in terms of personal experience, these two candidates exhibit all the differences that are to be expected from two people separated by a generation. 

Madigan was a disc jockey at Georgetown University in the early 1980s. Her tastes ran to the post-New Wave acts that were big on campuses at the time — Talking Heads, R.E.M. — as well as what she calls “oldies.’’ “There were more ‘Steely Dan Mornings’ than I care to remember,’’ she says. 

For Schmidt, “oldies’’ meant Elvis, who dominated music while Schmidt was in high school. In college, the hot new thing was the Beatles. They came to America while Schmidt was an undergraduate at Harvard. “Some of my friends went down to New York to greet them,’’ he recalls. 

Both candidates are Chicago Democrats, and both have been active in civil rights, consumer rights and political reform movements. But even their activism is largely defined by their generations. 

Schmidt worked for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign and founded a Chicago organization called “Lawyers Against the War in Vietnam.’’ In the 1970s, he led a group of lawyers that fought to oust incompetent Cook County judges who had been installed by Chicago’s Democratic Machine. 

Schmidt says his long and active career — and, especially, a campaign that has already taken him to almost every county in the state — should refute any concerns about the “vigor’’ issue. “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s going to out-work me.’’ 

Facing Schmidt’s longer legal experience, Madigan points to her political acumen. In 1998, she ran in the Democratic primary for the Illinois Senate, beating incumbent Sen. Bruce Farley, who was under indictment for mail fraud at the time.

Madigan subsequently won the general election to become the Senate’s second-youngest member (the youngest, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, is 33). She has since become the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, co-chair of the Conference of Women Legislators and a member of the governor’s Universal Pre-School Task Force. Schmidt’s only electoral experience is a failed run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1998.

Madigan has sponsored successful legislation that paid $1 million to identify and replace Asian long-horned beetle-infested trees, enabled police to seize vehicles with secret compartments for drugs or guns, and allowed high school students to serve as election judges.

“People said, ‘How are you going to get along in the Senate with all these older, white men?’ Well, [in South Africa], I had to fit in and communicate with [people] whose first language wasn’t even English,’’ says Madigan. “It doesn’t take five minutes in Springfield to realize it’s important to foster personal relationships with people.’’ 

The differing approaches of Schmidt and Madigan are apparent in their endorsements. Schmidt has garnered backing from such law enforcement officials as Scott Lassar and Thomas Sullivan, two former U.S. attorneys for Illinois’ Northern District, as well as several Illinois sheriffs. 

Madigan has won widespread support from Democratic Party organizations, including the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association and the Democratic State Central Committee.

On the other side of the primary awaits, most likely, Joe Birkett, the Republican DuPage County state’s attorney and a protégé of incumbent Attorney General Ryan. His only GOP primary challenger is River Forest trial attorney Bob Coleman, a political novice. 

Birkett, who has most of the state party’s major leaders behind him, is a tough-on-crime conservative, a position that could play particularly well in the first post-September 11 general election. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination won’t have an easy task in November. 

“Law-and-order always plays well in war time and in times of economic crisis,” notes Mooney, the UIS political scientist.

For Madigan and Schmidt, the more immediate question is whether Democratic voters think generational perspective matters. 


Kevin McDermott is a Statehouse-based reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Illinois Issues, January, 2002