SPRINGFIELD — An organization with close ties to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration that bills itself as nonpartisan is releasing a new documentary that takes a critical look at Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also leads the state Democratic Party.
Illinois Policy Actions’ “Madigan: Power, privilege, politics” comes as the Republican Party is trying to use the long-serving speaker’s unpopularity to bring down fellow Democrats in legislative races this fall. The film, which the group says will offer “an unprecedented look at the life and influence of ... one of the state’s most powerful political figures of all time,” is scheduled for an October release online and in “select movie theaters across the state.”
Illinois Policy Action, the advocacy branch of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute, is registered as a tax-exempt social welfare organization, which means it’s barred from engaging in partisan politics. But the organization has close ties to Rauner.
Before he was elected in 2014, Rauner’s family foundation gave the policy institute a series of donations totaling $625,000. More recently, John Tillman, the group’s CEO, joined the governor and others last week in interviewing potential replacements for former state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican who resigned his seat to become a lobbyist.
Diana Rickert, a spokeswoman for the policy institute, said Tillman participated on his own time and not in his capacity as head of the organization. As for Rauner’s contributions, they were made before he was running for office and represented a small fraction of the organization’s annual budgets, she said.
Rickert said the documentary is being released weeks before the election because it makes sense to put it out when voters are paying close attention to politics and government.
The trailer for the documentary, which can be viewed at michaelmadigan.com, highlights Madigan’s 45 years in office and three decades as House speaker, and the accompanying news release emphasizes Illinois’ lack of term limits for elected officials.
Those also are major talking points for Rauner and his fellow Republicans this campaign season.
Aaron DeGroot, a spokesman for the Illinois GOP, said, however, the party “had no involvement with this documentary.”
Politically motivated documentaries aren’t a new phenomenon.
In fact, a group’s attempt to make a 2008 documentary about Hillary Clinton, titled “Hillary: The Movie,” available through video-on-demand services ahead of that year’s Democratic presidential primary led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision. That decision, in turn, created fertile soil for the growth of social welfare groups such as Illinois Policy Action, which aren’t required to disclose their donors or most of their expenditures.
Edwin Bender, executive director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, said this is the first he’s heard of a social welfare group producing this type of documentary at the state level.
But Bender said it’s a natural extension of other activities these groups have engaged in across the country, including campaign-style tactics such as opening field offices, knocking on doors, sending out mailers and making phone calls.
“Any (social welfare group) that says it’s nonpartisan … that’s the letter of the law, but their activities belie that, whether it’s conservative or liberal,” Bender said. “(These groups) are designed to be involved in elections.”
The organizations typically argue that they’re advocating on issues, not doing election work, he said.
“That’s a thinly veiled excuse for being involved in electioneering,” Bender said. “They’re conforming to the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law has long ago vanished.”
Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said he hasn’t seen the film, but given the Illinois Policy Institute’s various ties to Rauner and the Republican Party, he doesn’t expect it to be evenhanded.
“All of those things would indicate that this is probably not produced with an eye of airing it on PBS,” said Redfield, who was invited to be interviewed for the film but didn’t respond.
Madigan also was invited to take part, but spokesman Steve Brown said that invitation was added to a long list of other media requests.
As for the group’s claims of nonpartisanship, Brown said: “It’s just a dark money lobbying group. … They make a mockery of anything that is remotely viewed as nonpartisan.”
Rickert countered that “a lot of people misunderstand what ‘nonpartisan’ means.”
“Sometimes, we’re more aligned with politicians of a particular party on one issue over another, but we won’t ever get involved in party politics,” she said.