A queen of the Chicago machine launches her political career in the western suburbs
Like many single 30-year-olds, Bridget Fitzgerald still lives with her parents, in Western Springs.
She holds a low-level state government patronage job and, with the exception of a multi-year run for queen of the Chicago St. Patrick's Day Parade, has kept a low profile.
That’s until earlier this year, when Fitzgerald suddenly launched a campaign to represent the 41st District in the Illinois Senate, challenging incumbent John Curran of Woodridge.
To understand why a politically-inactive, professionally-novice 30 year-old would, or could, suddenly decide to run for a contested seat in the state’s upper legislative chamber, it helps to look at her lineage.
Bridget Fitzgerald isn’t just any 30-year-old in the suburbs living with her mother and father.
She’s a 30-year-old living with a mother who is a Cullerton, as in state Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the man to whom Fitzgerald will report in Springfield if she wins.
Fitzgerald’s mom, Patricia, is Cullerton’s first cousin.
That proved enough for John Cullerton to choose Fitzgerald to run against Curran, a lawyer and former DuPage County Board member and Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney. He was appointed to fill the 41st District seat after Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) resigned last year.
The district covers parts of Downers Grove, Hinsdale, Darien, Woodridge, La Grange, La Grange Highlands, Countryside, Lockport, Lisle, Naperville, Western Springs, Lemont, Downers Grove, Willowbrook and Burr Ridge.
Property taxes a "top concern"?
With Curran’s unfamiliar name on the ballot, Cullerton has high hopes for taking it, feeling a “blue wave” year in the suburbs and hoping voters can be swayed to choose a different unfamiliar Irish name on the ballot.
His cousin touts only entry-level career experience and none in politics or government. But in a big year for Democrats, he's betting voters won't look too closely at her lack of a resume.
According to Linkedin, Fitzgerald spent a year selling health insurance for Humana before taking a position as “Community Affairs Specialist” for then newly-elected Democrat Illinois State Treasurer Mike Frerichs in January 2016.
Frerichs served in the Illinois Senate under Cullerton for eight years before running statewide.
Fitzgerald’s campaign has been bankrolled by Cullerton and his family to the tune of $1,022,863 as of Oct 19, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. She’s also received contributions from two of Cullerton’s sons, John III and Garritt.
Cullerton is taking it so seriously that he has even assigned his daughter to run Fitzgerald's race. Maggie Cullerton Hooper, 37, worked for Planned Parenthood before joining her dad's campaign operation in 2013.
Her strategy so far: Avoid specific issues and never say the “D” word (Democrat).
The Cullertons are keeping Fitzgerald out of situations that might reveal her inexperience, letting a torrent of television advertisements keep her on message. They have bought premium spots to target Republicans, including on Fox News during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
Fitzgerald's campaign ignored a request for an endorsement interview by the Naperville-Area Chamber of Commerce, one of the largest business organizations in the district.
“It is disappointing that a candidate would simply ignore local job creators and small business leaders invested in the local community," said Colin Dalough, a board member. "Businesses in the area are struggling with the fiscal, regulatory and tax policies enacted by Springfield power brokers; we have no idea where Fitzgerald stands on any key economic issues because she’s been a no show."
A promotional campaign video produced by Cullerton contorts to assuage the uninitiated. It strains to present Fitzgerald as experienced, moderate and independent, and not the younger cousin of a liberal career politician, to a district full of professional, Republican voters who moved to the suburbs to escape Chicago machine politics.
Fitzgerald still lives in her childhood home and has never paid them herself, but she nevertheless says high property taxes are a "top concern."
She has called for property tax "reform" and says the property assessment system is "unfair," without mentioning that the system was largely created by her cousin, the man financing her campaign, who also happens to make a living on it, when he isn't in Springfield.
Fitzgerald claims her father, retired commodities trader, Donald, is a Republican. He has voted in 12 primary elections, eight for Democrats, according to Illinois State Board of Elections, and promises to support term limits and ethics reforms for her cousin and his top Springfield ally, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago).
The term limits claim was too much even for Madigan, who publicly upbraided Cullerton and made him edit the video to remove the reference in September.
The strategy of keeping politics in the family would be a familiar to Cullerton, 69, who was himself hand-picked to run for public office on account of his bloodline.
Armed with an iconic last name — the first Cullerton won elected office in Chicago in 1871, the year of the Chicago Fire — he first ran for the Illinois Legislature in 1978, as a 29-year-old bachelor with four years as an assistant public defender under his belt.
In his most prominent case, Cullerton represented a north side man who posed as a cookie salesman to attract young girls, whom he took into city gangways and molested. A published report said Cullerton “put up no defense for his client, stipulating that the evidence the prosecution planned to submit at the trial was true.”
Two years later in Springfield, Cullerton quickly developed a reputation for sociability.
A 1979 Decatur Daily Review account, “State legislators make laws by day; Party at night,” described a Saturday night get-together hosted by Cullerton and then 32-year-old newly-elected State Rep. Al Ronan (D-Chicago), who would become a legendary lobbyist.
The invitations invited guests to “come cruising with two wild and crazy guys” and promised “mass quantities of beer, wine and food.”
At a parody Miss America pageant party that year hosted at a Springfield motel pool, Cullerton was named the Legislature’s “Mr. Wonderful” by a group of female lawmakers. He reportedly wooed them with his impersonation of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, later dropped from his act at the demand of his son, future mayor Richard M., then himself a state senator.
Fitzgerald’s previous campaign experience was limited to a pageant of her own. She mounted a three-year campaign to become queen of the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade, at age 24.
Eligible candidates must between 18 and 28, unmarried and of Irish descent.
According to a Patch report, Fitzgerald placed in the top 25 in 2011 and made the top five in 2012 before finally declaring victory in 2013.
"I'm just honestly so happy to know that hard work and dedication still pays off in this day and age,” she said.