Michele Piszczor is standing in the driveway of her Southwest Side home, pointing to a dent on the driver’s side door.
"My driver door is basically dented in," says Piszczor, pronounced PIZE-er. "There’s like a narrow mark here symbolizing maybe a narrow tube or a crow bar of essence that smashed into my car door," she says.
The dent showed up last fall, right about the time she started collecting signatures to get on the ballot. She’s a Democrat running against Speaker Michael Madigan for his House seat. And she believes the damage to her car was not a coincidence. Four of her tires have been slashed, too.
She shows the police report and the receipts. She’s spent about $400 replacing the tires.
"This is what happens. This is Chicago politics. But at the same time, to me, like I said, Madigan is the root of all evil here in our state. He is the weed in our garden," she says.
Some people might think it’s a waste of time to run against Madigan. He’s known for winning campaigns -- so many, in fact, that Democrats have held a majority in the House for 27 of the last 29 years. It’s rare for Madigan to even have an opponent.
"I think it’s common political wisdom that running against Mike Madigan is something of a fool’s errand," says Brian Gladstein, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "You know, he’s very smart. He’s not looking to run for any other office. He’s a skilled politician."
But that’s why Piszczor says she’s running. Madigan, she says, doesn’t connect with the district's residents.
"How can you be a state representative and not go door to door gathering your petitions, your own petitions? You represent these people. If you’re not out there talking to these individuals, how are you representing your district?" she says.
Piszczor and her brother grew up on the Southwest Side, raised by a single mother. After she graduated from the University of Texas Pan-American, she moved back to Chicago and got an administrative job at a suburban law firm. She bought a house in the Scottsdale neighborhood, around Cicero Avenue and 83rd Street.
But she didn’t like what she saw. There are foreclosed homes on her block, a lot of people are out of work and they’re worried.
"I could sit here and watch TV and complain or I can actually get out here and do something about it and that’s essentially what drove me to do what I’m doing," she says.
Piszczor says she wants to be a hands-on legislator, someone who works with the police department on public safety and is a voice for the Hispanic population.
But by running against one of the state’s most influential politicians, she’s rattling the power structure. What might otherwise be an easy re-election campaign for Madigan now requires a little more attention from him.
Piszczor is Hispanic and Polish, and she says she’s connecting with the increasingly Spanish- speaking population of Madigan’s district.
"Look. I’m here. I’m here to serve you. Has Madigan ever knocked on your door, in 42 years? No," she says.
But two other candidates are on the Democratic primary ballot, too: Mike Rodriguez and Olivia Trejo. They live a few doors down from one another.
Piszczor believes they’re plants – people who are running with Madigan’s blessing -- just to split the Hispanic vote. That makes it easier for Madigan to win.
They aren’t campaigning much. Neither of them filed paperwork to raise money, and they don’t appear to have yard signs or even Web sites.
We looked at the petitions they circulated to get on the ballot. One of the volunteers who helped Rodriguez also helped Madigan as a plant candidate 10 years ago.
We went to the houses of Rodriguez and Trejo to talk to them about their campaigns. They weren’t home and didn’t return messages left there.
Madigan isn’t saying much about his opponents. His spokesman said Piszczor isn’t "registering a blip on the radar screen" and wouldn’t be a real challenge for the longtime speaker. He suggested Piszczor may have damaged her own car to bring attention to her campaign.
Piszczor called that ridiculous.
"Despite my tires getting slashed, despite what I’m going through in this race I’m not going to give up," she says.
Her campaign manager is Jim Edwards, a political consultant who works mostly on Republican campaigns. Piszczor says he is a family friend, and she is not a puppet of the Republican Party, pretending to be a Democrat.
She will face Madigan, and the other two candidates, in an official showdown on primary election day March 20th.
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