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State House: On a safari for the candidates in 22nd District

Updated: February 24, 2012 4:34PM

You might need a degree in botany to sort out the 22nd State House District, where each of the four Democratic primary candidates has been labeled either a plant or a weed.

Two of the Democrats — Olivia Trejo and Mike Rodriguez — have been accused of being plants of the longtime powerful incumbent, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, who has an obvious interest in splitting any opposing votes. Whether plants or not, Trejo and Rodriguez are not doing much campaigning. They didn’t return phone calls or answer the doorbell when a Sun-Times reporter visited, and they don’t even have signs in their lawns promoting their own candidacies.

Madigan’s allies say his third challenger — Michele J. Piszczor — is the real plant, a tool of Republicans who are funding her campaign in hopes of ousting their nemesis from Springfield.

The assertions that Piszczor, 25, is a plant are based on her biggest donation – $5,000 – which came from conservative businessman Richard Uihlein. And her campaign manager, Jim Edwards, heads the political action committee of Jack Roeser, a millionaire Republican activist.

Piszczor said Edwards is an old family friend and that despite the unfortunate appearance of a Republican connection, she can’t afford to let him go because she has no one to replace him.

As for Uihlein’s donation, “I don’t care if you are Republican, I just need the money so I can run this race,” Piszczor said.

The weed in the race, she said, is Madigan himself.

“Michael Madigan is the weed in our political garden,” Piszczor said. “All these other races are just branches of the main weed. We have to pull Madigan out by the roots if we want to have some hope in this state.”

As much as some Republicans would like to see Madigan lose, political observers think the veteran 69-year-old pol will be extremely difficult to uproot after holding his seat for four decades. He is considered a strong favorite even though his newly drawn district is majority Latino and Piszczor is half-Spanish, half-Polish. Many of the Madigan people putting up yard signs and doing other campaign work owe their jobs to the veteran legislator, Piszczor said.

In response to a Sun-Times questionnaire, Madigan listed as his top recent achievements as reforms to workers’ compensation and the unemployment insurance trust fund, budget reforms, the overhaul of operations at McCormick Place and education reforms. The Legislature also fully funded pensions for the fiscal year, he said.

None of his primary opponents filled out questionnaires for either of Chicago’s major newspapers.

The district, better known for having Midway Airport at its center than for its political flora, includes part of the suburbs of Summit and Burbank and parts of Chicago’s Clearing, Garfield Ridge, West Elsdon, West Lawn and Chicago Lawn neighborhoods.

All four of the Democratic candidates live in Chicago.

Piszczor isn’t predicting a victory, but she does say she won’t go away. She said Madigan, who knew she was running, drew a legislative map that put her in a different district, but she now is looking for a home inside the 22nd.

“I’m going to keep running until I win,” she said.

As for the Republican candidate the primary winner will face in the fall — Robert Handzik of Chicago — he’s said to be a Democratic plant, too. Until this year, he had taken a Democratic ballot in every primary election for 20 years.

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