How Democratic dynasties, Republican infighting and big campaign money shape fall races
Amanda Biela was campaigning door to door in north suburban Glenview one afternoon last week when she stopped to talk with a senior watering his front lawn.
"I'm running for 15th District state rep," Biela told him, "and I'm basically running against the Madigan machine."
Biela explained that she's challenging incumbent state Rep. John D'Amico, which means she's also taking on his ally Michael Madigan, the long-serving state House speaker and Democratic Party leader. Biela, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and mother of three, added that her top priority is lowering property taxes.
She didn't mention that she's a Republican. Why bring it up right away in a Democrat-dominated district?
It didn't matter. The man remained focused on his grass. "All politicians are crooks," he told Biela.
She smiled and went with it. "That's why I'm running!" She offered him a flier. "Please, just think about it in November."
The man accepted the flier, glanced at it, and stuffed it into the mailbox on this porch. Then he went back to his lawn.
Voters are angry -- some to the point that they've tuned out politics -- as I saw when I walked a few neighborhoods with Biela recently.
In most places, that could spell doom for an entrenched incumbent. But in the 15th District, made up of parts of Chicago's Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs, Democratic Party insiders have triumphed for years, often without viable challengers. It's a story that's repeated in districts around Chicago every election cycle.
To add to her challenge, Biela has been forced to navigate a civil war within her own party as she tries to line up resources for a serious campaign.
In short, her race offers a snapshot of the Democratic political dynasties, Republican infighting and incompetence, and influence of big campaign money that have long defined Illinois and frustrated its voters.
And yet Biela argues, "I think this district can be flipped."
It would be a huge upset. She's taking on not just an incumbent with clout but a history of family and party domination.
D'Amico took office in 2004, but members of his family have run Chicago's 39th Ward, which makes up a large chunk of the 15th District, for more than a half century. His grandfather, Anthony Laurino, became the ward's alderman in 1965. When Laurino stepped down after 29 years in office, his daughter, Margaret -- D'Amico's aunt -- succeeded him. She's now been in office for 24 years.
In 1995, the elder Laurino was indicted by federal prosecutors for allegedly helping family members and allies get no-show city jobs. He died before his case was resolved, but both of D'Amico's parents were convicted and sentenced to prison for their roles in the ghost payrolling system.
D'Amico is paid about $78,000 a year as a member of the Illinois House, but that's his part-time job. He's worked for the city of Chicago since 1981, and now makes about $107,000 a year as an assistant district superintendent in the water department, according to city payroll records.
Though he's well aware Madigan is deeply unpopular across much of Illinois -- and widely blamed for the state's dire financial condition -- D'Amico remains a steadfast ally, arguing the speaker has fended off a right-wing push by Gov. Bruce Rauner, a relentless Madigan critic.
Since taking office, D'Amico has only faced three election opponents. He beat them all by at least 19 points. His top campaign donor is Democratic Majority, a political action committee Madigan controls.
D'Amico rejects Biela's charge that he's a machine guy in lockstep with the speaker. He told me he's repeatedly voted for property tax relief, as well as for investments in schools, parks and libraries.
"My campaign is based on volunteers and people based in the communities -- people who believe in what I believe in," he said.
Clearly, a lot would have to go Biela's way for her to win. It doesn't help that Republicans don't have a functioning campaign operation in Chicago or Cook County.
Biela was recruited to run last year by fellow Republicans in the Northwest Side GOP Club, a group trying to build a presence in that corner of the city and nearby suburbs -- including by playing off fears of an affordable housing proposal.
The Illinois Opportunity Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smaller government and limits on union rights, stepped in to pay for Biela's campaign legal fees, phone banking and consulting, records show.
But Biela said she was uncomfortable with how closely the IOP people and their ally Dan Proft, a well-known conservative activist, wanted to control her message.
Proft and IOP leaders have waged political war on Rauner and other Republicans they believe have betrayed them on abortion, among other issues. During the primaries last winter, Proft served as an adviser to Rauner's opponent, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, while a super PAC he runs, Liberty Principles, backed a challenge against House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. Proft's candidates lost both races.
But even after the primaries, Biela said Proft told her she couldn't work with Durkin or his House Republican Organization, saying, "It's black or white -- you have to pick a team."
The conversation left her wondering how the GOP could beat Madigan and the Democrats if its factions are fighting with each other.
Proft didn't dispute Biela's account.
"We support candidates committed to the economic liberty policy agenda who want to bring policy revolution to Springfield," he said in an email. "The Rauner-financed House Republicans support surrender Republicans who raise taxes and fold in with Chicago Democrat Socialists and their big government, cultural Marxist, status quo agenda. The two visions are mutually exclusive."
Proft characterized Biela as naive.
"Unfortunately, like so many first-time candidates, Amanda doesn't know what she doesn't know," he said. "Amanda will lose badly."
After their conversation, Biela said, she broke with Proft and began working with the House Republican Organization, which has helped her with promotional materials and volunteers. In June, Durkin's campaign fund transferred $250 to Biela's.
That's not much money. Even after Rauner's campaign gave the House Republican Organization $2 million a few weeks ago -- he's the group's top financial backer -- the HRO has to focus on districts that the GOP might be able to take from Democrats.
Biela, who's hoping for more support, said she has to prove her district is one of them.
She also knows she can't afford to blanket the district with mailings or put ads on TV, as more flush campaigns are able to do.
At the end of June, when quarterly reports were last filed, her campaign fund had about $6,100 on hand. D'Amico's had $369,000, much of it from Madigan's organizations and various unions.
In spite of the financial and organizational mismatch, Biela argues she could pull off an upset. Biela said a lot of people, including some Democrats, are tired of being overtaxed and ruled by political families like D'Amico's and Madigan's. So she's walking the district and talking about the machine and high taxes -- and mostly avoiding subjects like abortion, immigration and President Donald Trump.
"I talk about things that have an appeal to everyone," she said.
She's often rebuffed -- sometimes even before she speaks. But at some homes she's been greeted with enthusiasm. When Glenview resident Christopher Kellogg opened his door last week, Biela made her usual declaration that she was taking on the Madigan machine.
"Oh, thank God," Kellogg told her. "I'm fed up with it."