CHICAGO -- As the daughter of one of Illinois' most powerful politicians, Lisa Madigan was in an exceptional position when she decided to run for Illinois attorney general.
She had name recognition, a ready source of campaign money and the influence wielded by her father, Speaker of the House Mike Madigan.
But in the nine months since she announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination, the disadvantages of her pedigree have become clear. The race often seems to be more about her father, who is also the state Democratic Party chairman, than about her. She has faced questions about some campaign donations and their possible links to him. And she battles a nagging undercurrent that she is unqualified to be the state's top legal officer.
Remove her father from the equation and Madigan, 36, is a one-term state senator who worked for four years in a Chicago law firm. Before that, she held a variety of jobs unrelated to the law, including college administrator and volunteer high school teacher in South Africa. She also created several programs in Chicago for youth and the homeless.
Her Republican opponent is DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett, a lifelong prosecutor with 21 years of legal experience. Even so, a recent poll showed Madigan leading Birkett, 44 percent to 38 percent.
While having the last name Madigan has helped -- the same poll says she has 90 percent name recognition -- it also has caused problems. Confronted with uncomfortable questions about her father's possible misuse of public funds, she said he should be investigated, leaving herself open to criticism that she was disloyal. Gov. George Ryan, for one, seized the opportunity, saying she should have come to the defense of her father.
Some suspect that she made the statement with a wink from her father. "I think she's doing what probably her father would advise her to do," said Terry Norton, executive director of the Better Government Association. "She had no choice. She couldn't say, 'No, I wouldn't investigate that."'
Given her resume, the issue remains: Would she be in position to run for attorney general without her father?
Madigan deflects the question, but says it can be a challenge to get people to look at her accomplishments.
"The struggle is saying to somebody, 'Let me tell you about the work that I've done throughout my life," she said.
Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, who has known Lisa Madigan since high school, said having Mike Madigan as her father "is a double-edged sword.
"While it's definitely brought tremendous benefit to her from a political standpoint, there's been an unfortunate and almost unfair disadvantage. She has to work much harder than somebody off the street would to be judged on her own merits," he said.
Lisa Madigan was born Lisa Murray, the daughter of Shirley and Joel Murray, who divorced when Lisa was a young child. Her mother married Mike Madigan when Lisa was 10, but she was not adopted by him until some years later; she said she could not recall when, but that it was probably around age 18.
Court records show that she changed her last name from Murray to Madigan when she was 18 and entering college. When pressed for specifics, Madigan said, "It's a big, long, legal, personal mess. I'd rather not."
Madigan graduated from Georgetown University in 1988 with a degree in government. While in Washington, she worked for former Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.
Simon recalled that Mike Madigan spoke to him on his daughter's behalf.
"I hired her with some reluctance," Simon said, "because it's pretty hard to fire Mike Madigan's daughter. I said if she doesn't cut it, I'd have to get rid of her like anybody else. But she came on the staff and she was superb."
After leaving Washington, Madigan spent a year as a volunteer high school teacher in South Africa, then returned to Chicago to work as assistant dean for adult and continuing education at Wright College.
While there, Madigan also created an educational program for senior citizens, helped start a restaurant for the homeless and worked with the Chicago Police Department to create an after-school program for children.
"I was working on making sure we were keeping children in the community engaged and involved in their education so they wouldn't become part of the gangs, they wouldn't start dealing drugs," Madigan said.
After receiving her law degree from Loyola University in 1994, Madigan worked at the Chicago law firm of Sachnoff & Weaver, where she specialized in employment law. She never tried a case on her own.
Lowell Sachnoff, a senior partner at the firm, was Madigan's mentor.
"To criticize her for not trying cases is unfair because young lawyers at large law firms just don't have that opportunity. They get their training as second chairs," Sachnoff said.
After she was elected to the state Senate in 1998, Madigan faced doubts from fellow lawmakers about her independence from her father. But she often sided with Senate leaders -- and against her father -- on issues.
"Many people felt she would be the speaker's voice in the Senate. She never has even tried to be," said Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, who is an assistant Democratic leader.
Lawmakers describe Madigan as diligent, well prepared and smart. While many of her colleagues nap or read the newspaper on the flight to Chicago from Springfield, Madigan often reviews legislative issues.
Madigan says her life experiences make her qualified to be attorney general.
"When people listen to the record of work experience as well as community service experience that I've had, people really have no question in terms of my qualifications," she said.
She bristles at the suggestion that her father is running her campaign. But fellow Democrat John Schmidt, who lost to Madigan in the March primary, says Madigan's father was heavily involved in that contest.
"He put incredible pressure on an enormous range of individuals and groups who certainly would have come out differently in the race if they had not been conscious of the fact that they couldn't afford to offend the speaker," he said.
Mike Madigan did not respond to several requests for an interview.
Lisa Madigan concedes she doesn't have prosecutorial experience, but says it's not necessary.
"Less than 10 percent of what the attorney general does is criminal prosecutions work," she said. "You have an ability to get involved in any matter that has an impact on the public's health, public welfare, public interest, which really makes you the people's lawyer."
Madigan wants to run the office less like a prosecutor and more like a consumer advocate. Some of her proposals include creating a bipartisan state ethics commission, requiring lifetime police supervision of convicted sex offenders and protecting credit card users by requiring merchants to delete all but the last five digits of credit card numbers on receipts.
In the end, Madigan said, those plans are more important than her family connection.
"What people really care about is they want to know what your vision is for the office," she said.