ILLINOIS (WCIA) — In blistering campaign rhetoric, Conservative Party gubernatorial candidate Sam McCann describes Chicago as a corrupt political machine that deprives downstate Illinois of representation and resources; yet McCann’s own campaign relies almost entirely on the very mechanics who built that machine.

A trail of campaign finance documents, combined with dozens of interviews, reveal how political operatives in league with House Speaker Michael Madigan have worked to prop up McCann’s candidacy from its infancy.

McCann’s largest campaign expense, a total of $90,050 made in two separate payments, went to a relatively obscure company called Professional Circulation, Inc. State records show the company is registered to a two-story house in Oak Park. Its only other clients listed in Illinois are the state senate campaign for Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and the political action committee for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, a union historically and politically aligned with Speaker Madigan. Professional Circulation may offer services to other small state or local campaigns, but those invoices appear to fall below the state’s required reporting threshold.

Property tax records filed with the Cook County Assessor’s office show the residence belongs to trial lawyer Luke Casson who served as the political director of the Democratic Party of Oak Park for nine years, most recently in 2017, according to his LinkedIn page. All of Casson’s personal political campaign contributions went to Democrats and come from that same home address. Casson could not be reached for comment. 

Rick Crosley, McCann’s campaign manager, said he was not consulted on the expense, which makes up nearly half of the campaign’s reported spending so far in this race. 

“That was before I was brought on,” Crosley said on Monday. 

Crosley disputed the notion that McCann’s money and manpower comes almost entirely from Chicago. 

“We’re all over the state,” he said. “Everywhere from Carmi to Evanston to DuPage to Cook to Oak Park.” 

Only one of those examples he cited is outside of the Chicagoland region. 

McCann, whose second biggest campaign expense went to an RV rental company, claimed he spent his Monday campaigning with voters in an unknown location.

“We have disaffected Republicans and Democrats all over the state who want to talk to me, but quite frankly don’t want TV cameras there,” he said when asked of his whereabouts. “They don’t want it broadcast to the world. They don’t even want to put it on Facebook, let alone having a reporter report about it, but they’re supporting us nonetheless.”

How had McCann, a downstate senator from Plainview, heard of a small petition circulation company in a city on Chicago’s west side?

“Quite frankly, I don’t recall,” he said, before trailing off and abruptly ending the phone call. 

Hours later, in a text message, McCann explained that “in order to get the requisite number of signatures required, plus a 100% to 140% surplus so as to avoid a challenge, I employed every legitimate tool at my disposal to do so. I was blessed to have innumerable volunteers across the state circulating on our behalf. I also employed paid circulators,” he said.

At the first televised debate, incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner put McCann on the defensive during an exchange about a controversial measure to expand access and funding for abortion, one of the few items appearing on McCann’s campaign website. 

“Mr. McCann has been given far too much air time in this discussion,” Rauner complained to the moderator. “He is a phony candidate. He has received funding from Mike Madigan for his campaign. He was put on the ballot by Mike Madigan’s attorney.”

“Of course I deny the claim,” McCann barked after the debate had ended. “He’s lying. He’s a liar and he’s lying.”

Reached by phone, Madigan’s election attorney Michael Kasper said he did not hear Rauner’s remark during the debate and said he would not provide a comment for this story.

Crosley could not say how many petition circulators were paid and how many were volunteers. McCann said he didn’t know the background of the petition circulators, and said “you should stop trying to paint them with a brush that just isn’t there.”

At least two of McCann’s petition circulators have long ties to the Speaker and Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Robert Handzik and Terrence Goggin both live in Madigan’s 22nd House District. Both men ran phantom Republican campaigns against Madigan without raising, spending or reporting any campaign funds.

On Wednesday afternoon, a woman answered the door at Handzik’s home to say he wasn’t there. Moments later, a man in his mid-forties came around the back of the two-story home pinching the remainder of a cigarette between his thumb and index finger to ask in a raspy voice why a reporter had come to see him. 

How did he hear about the Senator from downstate and what prompted him to support his campaign for governor?

“I’ve never heard of him,” Handzik curtly replied.

But didn’t you pass petitions for Sam McCann?

“No, I haven’t. No.”

Then who had signed these petitions with his address and signature? The images appeared to jog his memory.

“Oh, yeah, I remember now. That was a long time ago.”

It was May of 2018.

Given that he previously challenged the most powerful legislator in the state, would he regale a reporter with tales of his campaign?

“I’m not talking about any of that,” he grumbled.

An airplane departing Midway Airport roared overhead at low altitude, offering a chance to change the subject. From the view on his front lawn, his neighbor on one side displayed an American flag. The other had a pro-union sign. Each yard was meticulously kept, including his own. To a passerby, it might look an awful lot like the city block where old Mayor Richard J. Daley once lived, as detailed in Mike Royko’s book, “Boss.”

Handzik’s smile faded, his brow furrowed, his voice deepened, and with a reverence Chicagoans reserve only for the Pope and Walter Payton, he said, “Oh no, he lived over in Bridgeport.”

The Speaker’s critics have alleged that Handzik posed as a candidate on the ballot to pave the way for Madigan’s easy re-election bid. Would Handzik confirm or deny their accusations?

“Yeah, I don’t want to comment about any of that.”

Wouldn’t it be easy enough to deny were it not true?

“No comment,” he repeated. 

So how did he actually hear about McCann’s bid for governor? And what made him want to pass petitions?

“I heard, I don’t know, on the TV news,” he stammered. 

Was he following Madigan’s orders to help get J.B. Pritzker elected as the Governor alleges?

“No, I got no more comment about it.”

Handzik turned, flicked the remainder of his cigarette to the sidewalk, and disappeared around the corner.

Perhaps Terrence Goggin, who also ran against Madigan as a Republican, might be able to explain how he and Handzik came in contact with McCann’s campaign.

“I already answered all these questions,” he snarled through a screen door. “What’s going on?”

Just days prior, Goggin was deposed in a lawsuit that alleges Madigan stages sham candidates to clutter ballots and stack the deck in his favor. Madigan has denied the allegations.

Goggin’s father, Jack Goggin, was a clouted senior official in the Cook County Clerk’s Office decades ago.

How well did Goggin know the Speaker of the House?

“How does anybody not know him,” he retorted. “He’s the leader of the 22nd District right here. Everybody knows him.”

Does Goggin consider himself a Democrat or a Republican?

He declined to answer and slammed the door. 

“I’m not familiar with those two particular names. I don’t know these guys,” said Marc Poulos with the Fight Back Fund, a group put together by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 which spans the Greater Chicagoland region. 

Poulos said it’s possible he or someone else from Local 150 referred McCann to Professional Circulation, Inc, but he couldn’t say for sure because “petitions were so long ago. I honestly don’t remember.”

The Fight Back Fund gave McCann’s campaign $300,000. The Engineers Political Education Committee kicked in another $650,000. IUOE Local 150 gave McCann $177,692, boosting his war chest above $1.1 million. The donations account for 99.9% of McCann’s campaign fund. He only has two other donors. His lone individual donor is from Barrington, a well-to-do northwest Chicago suburb. 

Still, Poulos argues McCann’s pro-union stances on issues — such as opposing ‘Right to Work’ laws, supporting collective bargaining, or protecting the prevailing wage — matter more than the makeup or geography of his campaign.

“Regardless of whether Sam McCann is from downstate, Cairo, Rock Island, doesn’t really matter,” Poulos said Monday afternoon. “His voting record is what matters.”

While he acknowledges Local 150’s close ties to Speaker Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), Poulos disputes Rauner’s assertion that Madigan is running McCann as a Democratic plant.

“This hasn’t been the Speaker Madigan show,” he said. “This hasn’t been the 13th Ward show. This has been the Sam McCann show and we’re just along for the ride to show our allegiance and loyalty to people who put their careers and families on the line when they push the button. Sam McCann continued to do that over an 8 year period and it didn’t go unnoticed by us.” 

McCann said he would seriously consider accepting a position in the Pritzker administration should the Democrat win in November, though he said that offer would be unexpected and unlikely.