It looks as though the maestro of Springfield—house speaker and Illinois Democratic party chair Michael Madigan—may be up to his old tricks again, using roll call votes on past legislation to hammer at Republican legislators fighting for reelection on November 4.
This time the target is state rep Rosemary Mulligan, a moderate Republican who for 16 years has represented the northwest-suburban 65th District. Taking a page from the Karl Rove playbook, Madigan's preferred candidate, Democrat Aurora Austriaco, has sent out mailings and aired TV commercials portraying Mulligan as soft on sexual predators and Internet porn.
Mulligan voted against House Bill 1727, a proposal that would have forced local libraries to install filters on their computers to keep users off porn and other adult-only Web sites. With Madigan's support—nothing happens in the house without it—HB 1727 passed 63-51 on May 2, 2007. However, it never came up for a vote in the state senate, where opponents persuaded president Emil Jones to kill the bill.
Austriaco depicts Mulligan as an ostrich with "her head in the ground when it comes to protecting children from Internet predators." A flyer reads, "If she can't get the easy votes right, how can we trust Republican Rosemary Mulligan on the tough ones? Aurora Austriaco knows we can't take chances with our children's safety.... Austriaco supports equipping public libraries with filtering software to protect our children against unwanted contact by adults, pornography, and other inappropriate material."
Look, I know we should never put too much stock in anything one politician says about another during a campaign. As one north-side Democrat has so eloquently put it, "This isn't a fucking bake sale; it's the art of war." But still, I'm not sure the Democrats want to head down this path.
What Austriaco's propaganda—paid for by the Democratic Party of Illinois—doesn't tell you is that HB 1727 was vigorously opposed by librarians and civil-liberty advocates across the state—not to mention almost every Democratic state rep out of Chicago, including Julie Hamos, Greg Harris, Harry Osterman, Sara Feigenholtz, and John Fritchey. If Mulligan's soft on sexual predators, so are more than half the Democrats in the house.
Librarians will tell you that the biggest problem with filters—aside from any constitutional issues—is that they just don't work very well. "HB 1727 wasn't the first filters bill we had to fight—there have been others down through the years, and we fought them all," says Mary Dempsey, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. "We have tested various filters, and there's really no logical reason as to what they do and don't block out."
The word dick, for instance, winds up getting sites blocked that mention Senator Dick Durbin or Vice President Dick Cheney. "The ones we tried blocked out all references to images of Harold Washington," Dempsey adds. "I don't know why they did that—they just did."
Dempsey continues: "They block references to any mention of breasts. So, for instance, you can't even get information about breast cancer. I guarantee you there are a lot of women who come to the library looking for information about breast cancer and breast cancer treatment."
Filters the city tested also blocked access to the city's own Web sites, she says: "I'm not sure why—maybe because of a link to the mayor's Council on Gay and Lesbian Issues. The filters tend to block references to gays or lesbians."
Even a description of the city seal was blocked. "It described the seal as a naked baby next to a seashell," says Dempsey. "The phrase 'naked baby' blocked it."
Moreover, the filters blocked sites dealing with abortion and birth control. The north-side representatives—Hamos, Harris, Osterman, Feigenholtz, and Fritchey—lined up to vote against the bill because the leading pro-choice, gay and lesbian, and civil liberties groups that form the core of their base saw it as an attempt by social conservatives to suppress information about their causes. Now many of these same activists are steaming that Austriaco—who seeks their support—would use the bill to smear Mulligan.
"Aurora says she's pro-choice, yet she's unfairly attacking Rosemary, who's standing up for a woman's right to get basic birth control information off the Internet," says Terry Cosgrove, president of Personal PAC, a pro-choice political action group. "I think it's hypocritical to raise this issue as a pro-choice candidate." Cosgrove says he contacted Austriaco to say so but she didn't return his calls.
Austriaco says she stands by the flyers and ads and insists that had she been in office last year, she'd have voted for HB 1727. She says she believes in a woman's right to choose and she's all for gay rights, but protecting children from sexual predators is her primary concern. And contrary to what Dempsey and other librarians say, she claims there are filters that enable libraries to block access to porn without losing access to legitimate sites.
"I'm for the protection of children from pornography and sex offenders," says Austriaco. "I've got two girls, 12 and 9. They're on the Internet all the time. It's about protecting children from offenders who are trolling the Web."
Besides, she says, Mulligan has sent out her own nasty mailings, in particular a flyer that accuses Austriaco of failing to pay taxes on a condo she and her siblings bought for their retired parents. "We were late on the first installment, but we paid the bill," she says. "So Rosemary shouldn't complain about nasty mailings."
It may seem odd that a Republican like Mulligan joined liberal Democrats in opposing a bill backed by social conservatives (it was introduced by Kevin Joyce, a Democrat from the southwest suburbs). But Mulligan's the last of a dying breed: a pro-choice moderate Republican who stays in office by cultivating support from moderates, independents, and crossover Democrats.
Mulligan contends that Madigan was behind the mailings. In fact, she thinks he set her up with last year's vote on HB 1727. "The bill just came out of nowhere—the speaker called it out of the blue," she says. "As soon as they called it, I knew Madigan was setting us up and there's a mail piece coming out about this."
If that's true, it was a smart move on all fronts: Letting the bill come for a vote, Madigan gave Joyce and other socially conservative Democrats a chance to declare their vigilance against porn, thus protecting themselves from conservative Republican challengers. At the same time, he gets to let Austriaco use it to batter Mulligan.
Madigan's known as a wily political operator who will do just about anything to build his Democratic majority in the house. But Steve Brown, Madigan's spokesman, scoffs at the notion that the speaker called up HB 1727 just to burn Mulligan and other Republicans. "Gee, I don't think we plan that far ahead," says Brown. "I'd love to say we do, but we don't. If that's the answer Rosemary came up with, then it's really time she stepped down."
But isn't it disingenuous to mail out flyers—paid for by the Democratic Party of Illinois—that blast Mulligan for voting the same way as Hamos, Harris, Osterman, Feigenholtz, and Fritchey?
"This is a matter for voters in this district—it doesn't have to do with any other districts," Brown says. "If Rosemary wants to make Madigan the bogeyman, fine. It's the same approach Governor Rod Blagojevich and Cook County assessor Jim Houlihan try. That's their favorite tactic. Rosemary's up against a very energetic, very talented opponent, and she's reaching out to the Reader to portray Michael Madigan as the bogeyman. That means she's on the ropes."v
Hear Ben Joravsky interviewed about this and other columns on the Mr. Radio podcast, mrradio.org/benj.php. And for more on Illinois politics, see our blog Clout City.