Illinois Attorney General race a battle over independence

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The race for Illinois attorney general has become a battle of who in the a crowded field of candidates is most politically and financially independent — and who’s most willing to take on public corruption in a state with a long history of it.

Among the candidates facing off in the March 20 primary are a former governor, state legislators, a police reform leader, a mayor, attorneys and a one-time Miss America. They’re vying for a chance to replace Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose surprise announcement that she wouldn’t seek a fifth term prompted the large group of hopefuls to get into the race.

Some of the harshest criticisms have been exchanged between state Sen. Kwame Raoul and former Gov. Pat Quinn, seen as the front runners in the Democratic primary, who’ve accused each other of pay-to-play and other improper actions.

Raoul released an attack ad against Quinn, saying the former governor left Illinois “a broken mess” and referenced the fact that Quinn’s administration repeatedly hired politically connected workers to the state transportation agency.

Quinn released an ad of his own soon thereafter, accusing the Chicago senator of “major conflicts of interest” over thousands in campaign contributions from tobacco, utility companies and other organizations the attorney general would likely have to prosecute during his or her tenure.

Raoul’s campaign said the contributions don’t reflect on his ability to be an independent voice in Springfield, adding the senator is a supporter of campaign finance reform.

“He has a 13-year record on voting on legislation and has never allowed a campaign contribution to influence his vote,” said Raoul’s spokesman Pete Matuszak. “He is not for sale.”

But many of the candidates have been quick to use Raoul’s robust campaign war chest and backing from Democratic party officials against him.

Aaron Goldstein, the defense attorney for indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, has similarly taken aim at Raoul, saying the senator’s connections put his “independence and true beliefs” into question.

The infighting highlights how the campaign itself is a race to see which candidate is the most independent voice free from outside influence.

The less high-profile candidates use their anonymity in Springfield to their favor , such as former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti who says he will not be “beholden to special interests or the Democratic machine.”

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering similarly emphasized the need for an “independent, principled and effective” leader in the position.

Even Quinn, likely the most established candidate, has taken a similar strategy. The Chicago Democrat has trailed in fundraising and failed to secure establishment backing. But he uses that as proof he is running a “grassroots campaign” that gets “the most out of a limited amount of money.”

Candidates are not just brushing up against Raoul, but also Madigan, who in some respects represents the old guard of the Democratic Party.

As Illinois’s chief legal officer, candidates say they’ll take up the issue of public corruption in a way their predecessor has not. Madigan’s tenure has largely come under scrutiny in this race. Candidates say she didn’t focus enough on public corruption, instead making her main issue consumer advocacy, like suing big banks over mortgage practices.

Many have called for expanding the attorney general’s corruption-fighting powers, empowering the office with the ability to investigate and indict without permission from state’s attorneys.

“Other states have passed laws that empower their attorney general to act as a government watchdog, with the ability to step in when state or local officials violate their oath of office,” said Democratic candidate Jesse Ruiz, former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. “We need that same level of protection here in Illinois.”

The attorney general acts as the state’s chief prosecutor in Rhode Island, Alaska and Delaware, according to Harvard lecturer and former Maine Attorney General James Tierney. He adds that attorneys general are in a unique position to prosecute cases as they have more resources and are independent officials not affected by the pressures of local politics. Across the country, state attorneys general have garnered more national attention as “the federal government isn’t having much success” prosecuting corruption.

But expanding investigatory powers in Illinois is easier said than done. Madigan has tried to pass legislation to “give the office the ability to independently prosecute public corruption crimes,” according to spokesman Maura Possley, but to no avail.

Some candidates, including former head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability Sharon Fairley, note it’s possible to combat corruption within the office’s constitutional bounds by working closely with local attorneys and providing them the resources they need.

Democratic state Rep. Scott Drury, took direct aim at Madigan saying the attorney general has “broad powers that include the power to investigate and prosecute corruption” but that “the current administration has taken a different view in recent years.”

The Highwood lawmaker has also run ads saying he’s “not like” other Democrats and would stand up to “machine politicians.”

On the Republican side, candidates also are arguing they’re best fit to battle public corruption.

Attorney and former Miss America Erika Harold calls herself a “reform-minded political outsider,” despite the fact her top donors are Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Republican Party.

Grasso said that “we have had nothing but talk” about ending public corruption under Lisa Madigan’s tenure, and that electing a Democrat would “yield more of the same.”