Michael J. Zalewski and Abdelnasser Rashid

Local state Rep Michael J. Zalewski (D-Riverside) will have a primary opponent this year for the first time in more than a decade. On March 14 afternoon, less than three hours before the filing deadline, former county board and Cook County Board of Review candidate Abdelnasser Rashid filed to run against Zalewski in the Democratic race for the 21st District.

Zalewski last faced a contested race in 2010, just two years after he was first elected to office, when he walloped Chicago lawyer and former police officer Terrence Collins, winning 71 percent of the vote in the 2010 Democratic primary.

But Rashid could pose a more formidable challenge. Rashid, 32, is a Harvard graduate who in 2018 lost a close race for a seat on the Cook County Board to Republican Sean Morrison. 

In 2020 Rashid was endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party in his race for a seat on the county’s Board of Review but was upset in the Democratic primary by lawyer Tammy Wendt, who won 54.07 percent of the. During those races Rashid had strong support among local progressive activists.

Despite his two losses Rashid, who lives in Justice, brings formidable connections and experience to the race. He has strong connections to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. 

Rashid worked as the Illinois deputy director of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016, served as the field director of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s Chicago mayoral campaign in 2015 and has worked for Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi and former Cook County Clerk David Orr. Rashid is now a partner at the progressive political consulting firm Democracy Partners.

Rashid says people are frustrated for many reasons, including political corruption and the recent indictment of former longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“People are sick and tired of the politics as usual and they’re ready for ethical representation,” Rashid said. “I do think it’s an issue and I think it’s time for representation in Springfield that’s going to put the people first.”

Zalewski didn’t have a lot of say about Rashid’s entrance into the race when contacted by Landmark on March 14. He sent a statement listing some of his major accomplishments in his 13 years as a state representative.

“During my career in the House, I’ve been a champion of working families, fought Bruce Rauner’s attacks on labor, delivered funding to our local infrastructure, protected health care, and lowered prescription costs,” Zalewski wrote. “I’ve also voted to increase penalties for violent gun offenders and drafted and sponsored our state’s first Racketeering law to crack down on organized violent crime. In 2022, I look forward to a robust, issues-focused campaign.”

The 22-count racketeering indictment of Madigan handed down by a federal grand jury on March 2 will hover over the race. The Zalewski family has close political ties to Madigan. 

Zalewski’s father, Michael R. Zalewski, is the former alderman from Chicago’s 23rd ward on the city’s Southwest Side and is mentioned in one of the counts in the indictment against Madigan. Michael R. Zalewski is not named in the indictment but is clearly identified as “Individual 23W-1”. 

Madigan is charged with coercing ComEd to pay Individual 23W-1, through a third party, $5,000 a month for little or no work as a lobbyist. Prosecutors apparently have wiretapped phone conversations of a close associate of Madigan, calling ComEd executives telling them to hire Michael R. Zalewski. 

Prosecutors also have a wiretapped phone conversation of the associate calling Madigan and saying Madigan could call Individual 23W-1 and tell him that ComEd executives were going to get in touch with him. The indictment further alleges that shortly after that conversation, Madigan called Individual 23W-1. 

Michael J. Zalewski’s entry to politics was criticized at the time as being politically manufactured. After winning the 2008 Democratic primary, then-state Rep. Robert Molaro decided to retire before the general election. The younger Zalewski was selected by party leaders, including his father, to replace Molaro on the general election ballot. The maneuver ensured Zalewski would not have to run in a competitive primary. 

Zalewski has thrived in a House controlled by Madigan. He eventually rose to become chairman of the House Revenue and Finance Committee and developed a reputation as an active and energetic legislator. Zalewski was a leader in bringing sports betting to Illinois.

However, Zalewski angered some local progressive activists last year when he was one of only six Democrats who voted against the ultimately successful repeal of a law requiring minors to notify their parents before getting an abortion.

In 2020, WBEZ reported that Illinois Commerce Commission chairwoman Carrie Zalewski, who is married to Michael J. Zalewski, was one was one of 35 people Madigan recommended for state appointments in 2018 to then-incoming Gov. J.B Pritzker. 

Pritzker appointed Carrie Zalewski, who was then serving on the Illinois Pollution Control Board, to the Commerce Commission in 2019 and then elevated her to chairperson. 

Landek bowing out of race?

Steve Landek

Zalewski is not the only local legislator with ties to Madigan who appears to be facing a primary challenge. Also on March 14, Lyons Township Trustee Michael Porfirio filed to run for state Senate in the 11th District in the Democratic primary. 

Incumbent state Sen. Steve Landek (D-Bridgeview) filed on March 7 to run in that district. However, on Monday Landek told the Landmark that he hadn’t yet decided whether to stay in the race.

“Yet to be determined,” said Landek, who was one of Madigan’s closest allies in the General Assembly.

Porfirio and Landek have been political allies – Porfirio is reportedly Landek’s chief of staff – and normally would not be expected to run against each other.

Porfirio, who lives in LaGrange, has contributed in the past to Landek’s political campaigns and to political organizations Landek has led. During the past decade Porfirio has contributed $1,700 to Citizens for Steve Landek with his most recent contribution of $250 coming in 2019. Porfirio also has also donated $5,900 to the Lyons Township Democratic Organization, which Landek heads.

Porfirio couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.