House Speaker Michael Madigan has won the Democratic primary, and subsequent general election, nearly two dozen times -- usually sailing to victory without serious opposition. But this year there are powerful forces trying to topple him. He's facing a well-funded challenge in the March 15 primary.
If you hear Gov. Bruce Rauner tell it, there's one main culprit for Illinois' deficit, pension debt, lack of budget, and so on and so on.
"Speaker Madigan and the politicians he controls are taking the state down," Rauner said back in May; he's only amplified the accusations since.
That sort of talk has made Madigan, who is chairs the Democratic Party of Illinois, unpopular in much of the state.
But unlike Rauner, who has to worry about what people in the suburbs, Chicago, and Downstate think of him, Speaker Madigan doesn't need to be popular statewide.
He only needs to win the support of voters in an enclave on the southwest side of Chicago, a heavily Latino area that includes Midway airport.
Then it's up to members of the Illinois House to decide who's speaker.
Madigan's held the top job in the House since 1983 -- save for two years of Republican control in the '90s. He's been a state rep for 45 years. That's longer than Jason Gonzales has been alive.
"I've had many opportunities to go and make lots of money, with the background in business that I have and, you know, the degrees that I have, and I decided to come back here because I care about our state and I feel that I can make a difference," Gonzales said in an interview.
Gonzales is a 42-year old Ivy League graduate who's taking on Madigan for the Democratic nomination in the 22nd House District. Like Rauner, Gonzales blames Madigan for many of Illinois' failures.
"We're at a fundamental time in our state where we have to ask ourselves some tough questions: Do we want to keep going the way we're going? Because if we do it's unsustainable. Or do we want new leaders who are going to go in and clean house and fix problems in our state, so that we can move forward?" he asks. "I think that Mr. Madigan is a great person at dodging responsibility. He's very powerful and obviously has too much power. And I think many people in my district agree. I've talked door to door with people they feel that Mr. Madigan's power is just too much, it's so much that it really ... distorts our democratic process in Illinois. No man should ever have this much power and control lawmakers like that. And that's part of the problem."
Gonzales, whose father is Mexican American, says the district deserves someone more representative of the demographics of the area.
"My grandmother was here, in the adjacent district, on 26th Street, and spent early years in the area, growing up and spending time with her and on 26th Street ... And then my parents moved us to the suburbs, you know, early on. And you know I've had ties to the district with friends and other relatives that live her. And I live in the West Lawn neighborhood. So I've been here, by the time the election comes, I will be here a few years," he said.
That's just about how long Gonzales says he's been considering running against Madigan.
Madigan supporters are suspicious of that timing, and question Gonzales' claims of deep ties given his relative status as a newcomer -- the 73-year-old House Speaker was born in the 22nd District and never really left.
Gonzales says he decided to rent, rather than buy, a home there because he didn't want Madigan to be able to tinker with boundary lines, and draw him out of the district.
Gonzales says he has ideas for the revitalizing the area: He wants to build what he calls an "advanced manufacturing cluster" -- he says it could bring about a manufacturing renaissance.
"I feel that, many people feel that, it's time for a change; 45 years is a long time for someone to be in office," Gonzales said. "You know, if we look at what needs to be done here, there's economic development in terms of, you know, vacant parcels on Cicero Avenue, on Pulaski Avenue. We've got an exodus of jobs, you know there's a real dearth of middle class, good paying jobs here."
He's also pushing for a casino near the airport; that, he says, would generate revenue for Illinois. In December, Gonzales said he did not support an income tax increase, but he was willing to consider options, like imposing a sales tax on more services.
Some of that sounds similar to Madigan's position. The speaker's also been vague about taxes, save for continually promoting a Constitutional amendment that would tax income greater than a million dollars. Madigan also says Illinois' fiscal problems must be remedied through a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts --- but he never goes into specifics, and says it has to be done on a bipartisan basis.
Gonzales says before Illinois considers higher taxes, lawmakers need to roll back expenses, including what's spent on prisons.
"I'm we're spending a billion dollars on a prison system that isn't working. We need to start thinking about other alternatives, especially for non-violent offenders," he said. "That could save us a lot of money, and also help reduce the recidivism rate, and cut down on mass incarceration. We've got a lot of non-violent offenders behind bars and too many repeat offenders that need help. So, you know, treatment of mental health. Stuff that has been proven to work much better than incarceration, and costs less, are alternatives that we need to explore."
Gonzales could be called a non-violent criminal himself; the Daily Herald first revealed that Gonzales spent some time in jail, and had several criminal convictions in the early '90s, including forgery, theft and the misuse of credit cards. He was pardoned last year by then-Gov. Pat Quinn. Gonzales's spokesman's quoted as saying it's "a story that can resonate ... it's important to see where he came from and what he is now. That's something that can inspire people."
It's a past local voters are being reminded of, thanks to campaign mailers and yard signs that now dot the area --- reading “Vote NO on Convicted Felon Jason Gonzales.”
Madigan hasn't said much publicly about his opponent -- his news conferences have focused on the state's historic budget impasse. But he was asked at one whether he was campaigning door-to-door in his district.
"I've done some walking; I've been very well received," Madigan said. "We're waging a strong campaign in House District 22. We expect to be successful."
Madigan made that comment in the Capitol -- the place where Gonzales says the speaker spends so much time being a power broker, he's not home to help the district.
Of course, there is another way to look at it: being arguably the most powerful man in Springfield brings all kinds of benefits to Madigan's neighbors.
Madigan's response for all of the comments saying he's to blame for the state's ills is: "If you wish to be a critic of me, then you will blame everything that's happened in the state for the last several years on me. Some do that, some people do that. I don't chose to be so negative. I chose to look at the problems are looking at today, work to be reasonable, work to be moderate, work not to be extreme, bring people together and work for a solution to problems. But if people wish to be critics, then they will be critics."
As Illinois wades into its ninth month without a budget, Madigan has cast himself as a defender of the middle class. He's got labor lined up behind him to fight off the governor's anti-union proposals.
But that's not good enough for Gonzales (who, by the way, says he's the son of an union electrician, and that right-to-work would be terrible for Illinois).
It's also apparently not good enough for Gonzales's committed, and wealthy backers. Still, to use an old Chicago political phrase, Gonzales insists he's nobody, nobody sent.
"I will tell you right now, I'm not a plant by the GOP," he said. "I'm not a plant by Mr. Rauner. I'm not a plant by anyone. I've wanted to do this for quite some time. And a lot of politics is about timing and I feel it's the right time. Not only is it the right time, it's my time to enter politics. And I feel that it's a critical time for the state to have some new leadership, and have people that are committed to solving problems in our state and that's the kind of person I am."
Still, huge amounts of money are pouring into the race -- and many of Gonzales's financial backers appear to be connected to Bruce Rauner. That includes businessman Blair Hull, who donated to Rauner's campaign for governor. It's hard to tell, though -- some of the money comes from people hiding behind Super PACS or non-profits that don't have to disclose contributions.
So much money has been spent by outside groups supporting Gonzales that it triggered an Illinois law allowing both sides to raise as much as they can, from whomever they want.
It's worth mentioning there are two other challengers in the race: Joe Barboza and Grasiela Rodriguez. But neither appears to have campaigned, at all. No websites. No public Facebook pages. No evidence of campaign fundraising.
Gonzales says they're plants, intended to split the opposition vote and tip the election in Madigan's favor. Madigan's spokesman says he knows nothing about any of the other candidates.
Whoever wins the four-way race is all but assured the seat. It's a heavily Democratic district, and no Republican has filed to run in the general election, anyway.
So after Tuesday, the fight's over. Until, of course, next January, when newly-inaugurated representatives of the 100th General Assembly choose who will lead them as speaker of the Illinois House.