The Spin: Chicago U.S. Attorney John Lausch gets reprieve from Biden administration through transition | Illinois’ top Democrats split over next state party chair | Pro-Trump Downstate Sen. Darren Bailey launches gubernatorial bid

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Lisa Donovan, Chicago Tribune
·10 min read
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Michael Madigan’s exit as Illinois Democratic Party chair Monday night has created more intrigue both around the federal public corruption case that has reached his inner circle and the power vacuum that has Democratic powerhouses split over who should replace him.

Though Madigan has said he’s done nothing wrong and has not been charged with a crime, his onetime closest confidant and former Commonwealth Edison executives have been indicted in an alleged scheme in which prosecutors say money and do-nothing jobs went to the former speaker’s allies in exchange for help with state legislation. Madigan resigned from the state legislature and his party leadership post less than a week apart.

Now, there is the party split over who should succeed him: Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth quickly issued a joint statement endorsing Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris, who recently took over as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, meanwhile, is backing U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, who represents the south suburban 2nd Illinois Congressional District.

In the middle today was Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was asked during a news conference about who she would support. Considering her background as a federal prosecutor, the mayor also was asked whether the public should read into Madigan’s resignations from the legislature and his role as party chair.

Lightfoot steered clear of answering both questions.

There also was a bit of an awkward moment during Lightfoot’s morning news conference, in which she signed an ordinance dealing with changes to the city’s Welcoming City Ordinance.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a frequent Lightfoot critic, was asked whether he agreed with the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s call for the mayor to resign over directing $281.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to the Chicago Police Department.

A DSA member himself, the 35th Ward alderman offered a curt response as Lightfoot stood several feet away: “I’m here to focus on the Welcoming City Ordinance,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s a grassroots democratic organization, so they make decisions on their own,” he said of the DSA.

“Those decisions aren’t made by Ald. Rodriguez or myself, they’re made through the democratic process that the organization has,” he said, referring to fellow DSA member and 33rd Ward Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, who also was present.

Welcome to The Spin.

Taking sides: Democrats split over who should lead Illinois party with Michael Madigan’s exit

It wasn’t too terribly long after Madigan’s departure as state Democratic Party chair was announced that the jockeying over his replacement started. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced they’re backing Ald. Michelle Harris.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin countered that he’s backing U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson to be the state party’s next chair.

Duckworth and Pritzker said in their joint endorsement of Harris: “As our nation moves on from the chaos of the Trump years and our state begins charting a brighter path forward under new legislative leadership, the next leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois must continue the progress we’ve made by supporting Democratic candidates who will help working families at the local, state and federal levels equally. We believe Alderman Michelle Harris is best qualified to lead our party forward.”

In his written endorsement of Kelly, Durbin said her “experience in Congress, the state legislature, and managing an Illinois constitutional office afford her a breadth of important experience and skill sets. I cannot think of a better person to lead Democrats moving forward in Illinois.”

Mayor Lightfoot isn’t endorsing either candidate, saying this morning, “I love both Robin Kelly and Michelle Harris.” The Tribune’s Gregory Pratt has the story here. Harris is the mayor’s newly appointed floor leader, which makes her responsible for helping Lightfoot carry out her agenda. And Kelly backed Lightfoot for mayor over Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Kelly’s former boss.

Does either candidate have an advantage? There may be a bias among some Democrats toward billionaire Pritzker’s choice — after all, his deep pockets could sustain political coffers, but that doesn’t erase Durbin’s political muscle, says Christopher Mooney, a University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist.

It was Durbin who first suggested it might be time for Madigan to exit his post as state party chair, going on WTTW Channel 11 after the November election and saying Democrats in the state “paid a heavy price” for Madigan’s party leadership with losses in the General Assembly as well as Gov. Pritzker’s failed progressive tax amendment.

With respected candidates for the Democratic Party chair and supporters in the mix, it’s possible the selection will look like an actual democratic — that’s with a small “d” — election and not some kind of backroom deal, Mooney said.

“There’s a power vacuum and it’s been a generation or two since the party’s had to think about these things, and so now Democrats are giving it some thought — and apparently it’s not all greased as it typically was in the past for various things. And so they’re going to have an open discussion about these things.

“Here’s an example of actual debate and democracy. It may be unusual in Illinois in recent history, but it’s not that unusual elsewhere.”

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, was asked whether we should read into Madigan’s exit from public office and politics: “That’s speculation on top of speculation on top of speculation. I’m not going to go there. I, look — former Speaker Madigan gave, I think, a very lengthy and fulsome statement upon his resignation from the House of Representatives and similarly last evening on his resignation from the head of the Democratic Party. I think that speaks for itself.”

Other politics news: Durbin will headline the first-ever fundraiser for new state Sen. Mike Simmons tomorrow: It comes just weeks after Democratic Party leaders appointed Simmons, a former policy director under former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to fill the 7th District Senate seat vacated by Heather Steans. Many of the state’s highest-profile Democrats are serving as hosts, including Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Kelly, Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer.

“Mike Simmons will bring fresh perspective and a deep commitment to tackling systemic racism that is urgently needed right now in government,” Foxx said in a statement.

Simmons is the first senator of color to represent the 7th District, which stretches from the North Center neighborhood north into Evanston, as well as the first openly gay person to serve in the chamber.

Tonight: Mayor Lightfoot is the headliner at tonight’s virtual fundraiser for LPAC, the political action committee supporting LGBTQ candidates across the country. Details here. Event hosts include Laura Ricketts, one of the sibling co-owners of the Chicago Cubs and longtime fundraiser for Democratic candidates and causes, as well as Jennifer Pritzker, a retired Air National Guard colonel, cousin to the Democratic governor and a lifelong Republican who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election only to break with him over LGBTQ issues and support Joe Biden in last year’s election.

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A change of leadership in the Illinois Democratic Party, yes. But what about the Chicago U.S. attorney’s office?

From the Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart and Jason Meisner: “Chicago’s top federal prosecutor will stay on the job — for now.

“After a bipartisan push, the White House will allow U.S. Attorney John Lausch to remain in office until a successor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, instead of stepping down by Feb. 28 as initially requested by the Biden administration, a source familiar with the decision told the Chicago Tribune.

“That means Lausch is likely to stay on the job for at least several more months, said the source, who was not authorized to speak about the decision publicly.”

The announcement came hours after Mayor Lightfoot - echoing calls from U.S. Sens. Duckworth and Durbin - said that Lausch should stay on until a replacement is found.

“We can’t be without a permanent head of this office as we head into the summer months when things are most challenging,” Lightfoot said at an unrelated news conference today, praising the office’s partnership in crime-fighting across the city. “That makes no sense.”

Conservative Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey announces governor run, pledges to fight ‘political elites’

From the Tribune’s Rick Pearson: “Conservative Downstate Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey, the fiercest legislative opponent of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s pandemic-induced public health restrictions, formally announced his candidacy for governor Monday night, pledging a grassroots movement to take Illinois back from ‘political elites.’”

“Republicans and Democrats have worried about the donor class more than they’ve worried about the working class, and friends, that ends now,” Bailey told supporters at a kickoff event in Effingham.

Pearson notes that “Bailey is the second Downstate conservative Republican to publicly declare a governor bid, following last week’s announcement by former one-term state Sen. Paul Schimpf of Waterloo. Several other Republicans also are mulling a run, including suburban businessman Gary Rabine.” Read more here.

Lightfoot calls for investigation into attack on Chicago Ald. Brendan Reilly outside River North bar

Lightfoot said today that she “called for an investigation into the attack against an alderman outside a downtown Chicago bar in part because he’s an elected official and she wants to make sure he wasn’t targeted,” the Tribune’s John Byrne and Annie Sweeney report.

They write: “Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly said two men began punching and kicking him for no apparent reason as he waited for friends to join him outside Boss Bar in River North on Thursday night.

“Reilly said a security guard from Boss Bar helped pull them off him. The men fled, and Reilly didn’t contact police, saying he didn’t need medical attention and the attackers had already left the area.

“Lightfoot said she learned about the attack from a news report Monday, and her office released a statement Monday evening saying the mayor ‘is deeply concerned and has directed the Chicago Police Department and the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to conduct a full investigation of this incident, including the delay in reporting.’” Read more here.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot signs ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance update ending Chicago police cooperation with federal immigration agents, the Tribune’s Gregory Pratt reports.

Other news: Contenders for Cook County public defender appointment include some high-profile names, the Tribune’s Megan Crepeau reports.

A winter, COVID-19 thaw: Mayor says Chicago lakefront, playgrounds, indoor pools reopening after COVID-19 closures 11 month ago

From the Tribune’s Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas: The city’s lakefront, playgrounds and indoor aquatics centers will begin to reopen after the coronavirus pandemic forced them to close nearly a year ago, the Chicago Park District announced Tuesday.

“Metrics related to the spread of COVID-19 allowed the city to ease restrictions, parks General Superintendent” Michael Kelly said in a news release. The decision came a day after the city’s Health Department and Mayor Lori Lightfoot touted a decline in the city’s test positivity rate, which dipped to 3.4%, ‘the lowest the city has been since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak,’ the Health Department said on social media.

During a news conference today, Lightfoot said children are “excited that the playgrounds are going to be officially opened,” despite the fact that there’s plenty of snow on the ground.

“This is in anticipation of the spring and the summer,” Lightfoot said.

Chicago COVID-19 vaccine shipments “back on track” following massive winter storm delays, the Tribune’s Alice Yin reports.

Cook County set to resume jury trials since pandemic closures, the Tribune’s Megan Crepeau reports.

Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan among states moved down on Chicago’s emergency travel order that now exempts vaccinated people, the Tribune’s Alice Yin reports.

Thanks for reading The Spin, the Tribune’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox weekday afternoons. Have a tip? Email host Lisa Donovan at ldonovan@chicagotribune.com.

Twitter @byldonovan