State Rep. Nekritz calls crossing Madigan a defining moment
Tradition would dictate that the woman from Kansas should fear the wrath of the great and powerful Oz.
But Elaine Nekritz didn't heed those warnings, choosing instead to cross arguably the most powerful man in Illinois politics: House Speaker and Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan, a move she cites three years later as the defining moment of her legislative career thus far.
It was February 2009, and Nekritz, then a six-year Democratic state representative from Northbrook, had a problem with the rules that dictated how the House would conduct its work over the next two years -- rules that offer Madigan certain advantages in controlling action at the state Capitol.
"From the research I've done, our rules are more leadership-centered than other states," Nekritz said during an interview this month in Springfield. For instance, no House committee can hold a meeting without Madigan's approval.
"If he doesn't like it, nothing happens," Nekritz said.
Her "no" vote on the House rules was picked up by only two media outlets -- one of them a political blog, the other, the Daily Herald. But those inside political circles remember.
"That took gumption," state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Elmhurst Republican, said.
Nekritz says she wasn't sure how Madigan would react.
But three years later, she has found herself behind the curtain -- arguably closer than a majority of her peers to Madigan's inner circle. She chairs several high-profile committees and spends hours each week at the leadership table inside Madigan's Springfield office, reviewing pending legislation.
"Very recently, Elaine has really taken some significant steps," Madigan said in an interview one recent morning, leaning back in his swivel chair, his hands folded.
Those steps could hurt Nekritz's image as an independent voice, says Rabbi Jonathan Greenberg, Nekritz's Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 election, criticizing a "disturbing lack of public negotiation" in the House under Madigan's leadership.
"Elaine is headed down that same path," the Northbrook Republican said.
Nekritz, 54, a former competitive cyclist, is working hard to stay out in front and handle three prestigious yet tough committee assignments delicately -- particularly the House investigative committee on Rep. Derrick Smith, the Chicago Democrat who could be ousted from his seat after his indictment on federal bribery charges.
Madigan describes Nekritz's assignments to chair the House pensions committee, judiciary committee and Smith committee as "three assignments in the current term that are all very significant assignments, assignments others in our delegation would not have gotten, especially the Derrick Smith investigation."
The investigation, he said, "is not an easy matter. It's an extraordinary matter," noting the committee will function like a grand jury.
"I was quaking in my boots walking out of his office," Nekritz said of Madigan choosing her to head the committee. "But it's one of those things, when your leader asks you to take on an assignment, you just do. You do the best job you know how. You don't say no."
Nekritz realizes heading up a committee dealing with a controversial investigation of a black caucus member could put her on shaky ground in an often racially charged General Assembly.
"I guess I would hope that we would handle it the best way we know how, and it will all work out," she said of the committee's actions. "I am sure the black caucus is not unanimous of their view on this."
Madigan says he chose Nekritz because he wanted members who will "take their responsibilities seriously, and not to create a bias for or against Derrick Smith."
Nekritz also occupies another political hot seat as a member of Gov. Pat Quinn's pensions working group and one of Madigan's point people on pension cutbacks, an issue that ignites divisive debates even within her own party. Various Democratic proposals could raise public employees' retirement ages, increase what they pay toward their pensions, and make either local schools or a broader array of local governments pay what's now the state's share toward teacher pensions -- a highly controversial proposal in the suburbs.
Nekritz, a former real estate attorney and University of Michigan law graduate, describes her foray into politics as a serendipitous accident.
The youngest of four girls from Wichita, Kan., Nekritz was working part time at a North Shore bike shop in the early 1990s, something she said she knew "I wouldn't be doing forever." After volunteering with her local Democratic precinct in 1995, she was recruited by the Northfield Township Democratic Organization to make a bid for state representative in the 57th District, which now includes parts of Glenview, Northbrook, Des Plaines and Prospect Heights.
She lost to Republican Elizabeth Coulson of Glenview but says that first campaign got her "totally hooked" on politics.
After spending years working for state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg as a legislative aide, Nekritz hit the campaign trail again, winning the 2002 election against Des Plaines Republican Mary Childers.
For her first few years in the state House, Nekritz waded in cautiously, quietly settling into an office located behind a Des Plaines tombstone factory.
"I came in, and I worked on some things that weren't the big issues going on in Illinois," she said. "I care a lot about environmental issues. I worked my colleagues, figured out the process, but then I learned how to do that. And it was like, what's next?"
She joked that her biggest piece of press, through 2009, was coverage of her tradition of cartwheeling through suburban Fourth of July parades.
But that was soon to change.
Two years after her vote against the rules, Nekritz found herself on the other end of Madigan's wagging finger on the House floor. He was inviting her to join House leadership.
"When a member sits in the back of the chamber and Madigan comes up to them, that raises attention," Nekritz said.
As one of five members who review legislation with Madigan, Nekritz said her position at the leadership table has opened up a new world for her, and given her session days a frantic pace.
Recently, on the last week of scheduled committee meetings of the current session, Nekritz flew around the Capitol complex, swigging Pepsi at an 8:30 a.m. judiciary committee hearing before presenting hallmark legislation -- a bill that would expand citizens' First Amendment rights and allow them to record the actions of police officers.
She cautiously runs the Smith hearings, which have started slowly, giving other members time to talk and carefully consulting with David Ellis, prosecutor in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's impeachment proceedings.
Reboletti said serving on the Smith committee has been a chance to know Nekritz and her work better.
The two "are usually 180 (degrees) from each other on the political spectrum, but we're both attorneys," he said. "Now, we talk by email, by phone, at all different times of the day."
Reboletti described Nekritz as "very articulate. Very intelligent. Very concerned about following the process."
Moving up the ranks has made certain aspects of campaigning easier, Nekritz says.
Quarterly reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections show contributions to Nekritz from political action committees have increased in the past two election cycles, though she was unopposed in both 2010 and the 2012 primary.
In campaigning against Nekritz, Greenberg says his opponent isn't "a typical Springfield Democrat." Yet, he cites a distinction between occupying a position of leadership and being a leader.
"A leader has accomplishments. (Sitting on a commission), that's not an accomplishment," he said.
Last year, state Sen. Susan Garrett -- a Lake Forest Democrat and close friend -- asked Nekritz if she would run for her seat, which Garrett was giving up after more than a decade to spend more time with her family.
"I did give it 24 hours, but I knew within 20 minutes," Nekritz said. "I feel like the House is the place I want to be. A lot of that is because of the opportunities I have been given for leadership in the House."
While Nekritz says she would be "very open" to other opportunities, she stops short of outlining her goals in the chamber.
"There have been dozens of people who have said, 'I want to be speaker,'" Nekritz says, with a trace of a smile. "They're all gone and Madigan's still there. I don't even want to speculate about that."