Illinois Democrats have a problem.
Increasingly, elected officials in the failing state are blasting Gov. Bruce Rauner, pinning the state's unprecedented woes on the freshman Republican. And, increasingly, they're first pitching their independence from Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who leads the state Democratic Party.
That latter point is of real interest.
In the past two weeks, I've sat down with two Illinois constitutional officers: Treasurer Mike Frerichs and Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
Both are former lawmakers turned statewide officers. Both are Democrats. But stylistically, the two are different.
Frerichs, in a one-on-one meeting, was candid and frank, per usual. He argues that Rauner's early anti-union positions poisoned, essentially undermining, any hope for meaningful pension reform.
Mendoza, meeting last week with the Quad-City Times editorial board, was more aggressive in her criticism of Rauner. Yet she, too, outlined the strain Illinois' two-year budget impasse has leveled on her office. One can only imagine what balancing the books looks like when $15 billion in bills are piled up and the cash on hand can't even cover the interest. She took some serious swipes at the governor. Mendoza assumed that disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, would be the "worst governor" she'd ever see, she said.
But "Rauner's worse," she said.
Rauner and Mendoza have been pounding each other for months.
Certainly, there's enough blame to reach from Rockford to Cairo. But, in both meetings, it was the attention spent to outlining how this isn't about partisanship that caught my interest.
Frerichs was blunt about the challenge faced by those like him trying to attack a Republican governor without looking like another partisan shill.
"It's difficult, as a Democrat, to criticize a governor who's a Republican."
Mendoza spent significant time describing instances, during her tenure in the General Assembly, when she bucked the venerable House speaker.
In each meeting, both officials needed to first establish their independence from Madigan before launching into a sometimes brutal critique of Rauner. In a very real sense, it's an acknowledgement that Madigan, and his slumping poll numbers, are a yoke around their necks. Anything they say will, ultimately, be easily cast as just a partisan hit job.
Rauner is underwater in statewide polls. But so, too, is Madigan. Those numbers might not mean that much to Madigan personally. He's untouchable in his geographically small legislative district in Chicago. But they do require any Democrat trying to build a case against Rauner to first rhetorically establish that they're not Madigan's pawns. It's a hard lift, one that Rauner's campaign will surely tap heading into the 2018 election.
The thing is, both Frerichs and Mendoza make legitimate points about the state's institutional failings. Frerichs highlighted how he, as manager of state investments, couldn't buy bonds from borrowers with Illinois' credit ratings. Mendoza isn't wrong when she hammers away at executive agencies dumping 10 months-worth of bills on her desk after sitting on them.
What's unclear is how these messages will reverberate amid the political cacophony that long ago consumed Illinois.
Both Frerichs and Mendoza are Democrats. They both have established histories with Madigan. And they both know those facts will undermine anything of substance they say.
Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org