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Criticism of Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios dominated a final forum of the party's big field of attorney general candidates as they sought to display independence from leadership.

But state Sen. Kwame Raoul said it should be left up to voters if Berrios deserves re-election in a hard-fought battle against primary challenger Fritz Kaegi. The Cook County Democrats chaired by Berrios endorsed Raoul.

All eight candidates are seeking to replace Lisa Madigan, the daughter of the speaker, after she opted not to seek election to a fifth term. They appeared Monday night on WTTW Ch.-11 in the final televised forum of the race before the March 20 election.

All of the candidates said Madigan should step down from the party chairman post he's held for two decades. He has found his party leadership under question after he recently shed two loyal political operatives following harassment complaints.

But only a few members of the panel said Madigan should also step down as House speaker, a position he has held for 34 of the past 36 years. Chief among them was state Rep. Scott Drury of Highwood, who was the lone Democrat not to vote for Madigan for speaker in 2017.

"Speaker Madigan gives (House Democrats) money, campaign staff, he controls their legislation," said Drury. "When I didn't vote for him, there were no texts, no phone calls" from his rivals for attorney general, he said, adding that Madigan and Berrios are part of an "old boys club."

Harsher criticism was pointed at Berrios following attacks on the property assessment system he controls. A recent study corroborated the findings from the Chicago Tribune's investigation "The Tax Divide," which exposed widespread errors and inequities in residential assessments under Berrios from 2011 through 2015.

"His office is sort of the poster child for everything that's wrong with Democratic politics right now," said Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering. She acknowledged she is a Lake County resident and can't vote in the Cook County assessor's race.

Attorney Aaron Goldstein called Berrios "a cancer in our democracy" and former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti and others said the attorney general's office should investigate the assessment and property-tax system in Cook County.

"That is an area where there's very questionable and shady activity going on," Mariotti said. Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, a former member of the county's property tax appeals board, said "the attorney general should investigate the entire process in Cook County."

But Raoul said he was not taking sides in the Cook County assessor's race. "I'm saying the voters should decide who is the next assessor," he said.

The candidates were mixed in assessing Lisa Madigan's tenure. Criticism largely included suggestions she should have been tougher on investigating corruption.

"The perception, true or not, is that she was only allowed to go so far" because of her father's powerful roles, Drury said. Raoul said he viewed her as "an independent broker" who has "done the job well."

Goldstein and Mariotti each said she should not have defended a law signed by Quinn to cut teacher and state worker retirement benefits to deal with Illinois' huge unfunded pension liability. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled the law unconstitutional.

Sharon Fairley, the former head of Chicago's new police oversight agency, said her campaign for the office "was just getting going" because "the TV ads are just getting in the air."

"I will be able to convince those undecideds and they will be coming my way," she said.

Former Chicago Board of Education member Jesse Ruiz defended his tenure there under former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was sentenced last April to prison time over a bribery scandal. Ruiz said he stepped up in a leadership role as acting CEO to replace Byrd-Bennett, helped fix a "flawed" system and suspended payment on the $20.5 million no-bid contract that was at the center of the federal investigation.

Two Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination for the post: Erika Harold of Urbana and DuPage County Board member Gary Grasso.

The debate came as Raoul went up on the air with an ad featuring the late Mayor Harold Washington describing how he had made a mistake hiring Quinn as the city's revenue director.

"I must have been blind or staggering. I would never appoint Pat Quinn to do anything. Pat Quinn is a totally and completely undisciplined individual," Washington says in the ad, based on an old WGN Ch.-9 interview. In the ad, a narrator also contends Quinn's "incompetence...gave us (Republican Gov.) Bruce Rauner."

A similar spot was run against Quinn by his unsuccessful 2010 primary challenger for governor, former Comptroller Dan Hynes.

Meanwhile, Fight Back for a Better Tomorrow, an independent expenditure committee, filed notice that it is spending $675,000 to oppose Quinn in the contest. The committee, which does not have to detail its donors, is headed by James Sweeney, president of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.


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