article and photograph by Kevin McDermott
It’s a rainy December evening, and Rich Miller is still keyed up over the day’s top story when he arrives at the small, dark bar at Maldaner’s Restaurant in downtown Springfield. The founder, publisher, editor and sole reporter for the Capitol Fax political newsletter rejects the Jameson’s-and-soda that the bartender automatically offers. “Too early,’’ Miller declares — and he orders a Guinness instead.
He’s here to talk about himself, but he’s more interested in dissecting the story. Gov. Pat Quinn got into it that day with state Comptroller Dan Hynes over Quinn’s $500 million short-term borrowing plan. To the state’s mainstream media, it’s a straightforward policy disagreement between the two top contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination; to Miller, it’s a labyrinth of political intrigue and comedy. The players are referenced by first names, like kids on a playground. The story is augmented with on-the-spot psychoanalysis and the occasional cackling laugh:
“The governor said Alexi [Giannoulias, the state treasurer] is on board and Dan [Hynes, the state comptroller and Quinn’s opponent in the Democratic primary] isn’t. ...Well, it turns out Alexi wasn’t on board. ... Lisa [Madigan, the attorney general] has to sign off, too, but they were dinking her around for two months. ... There’s some electoral politics involved. ...There are [community] groups that are supposed to get [part] of this $500 million. ... They’re in big trouble. They needed to get this done by Christmas, but there’s a lot of steps you have to take to sell a bond; it’s not like selling something on eBay. ... So the governor kind of freaked out. ... All of a sudden on Monday, everybody was told, ‘You have to sign off on this tomorrow.’ But they don’t have a plan yet. ... There are things you need to provide to the comptroller to get him to sign off on this, but they basically said, ‘Sign off and we’ll tell you later what we’re gonna do.’ Who does anything like that, except if your wife tells you to do it?’’ He cackles.
Chances are, you didn’t get most of that in your local newspaper. And unless you’re part of a select cadre of Springfield and Chicago political insiders, chances are you didn’t really need it.
“It’s not ‘newspaper stuff,’” Miller admits. “But my readers care about this.’’
Miller’s readers are the legislators, staffers, lobbyists, reporters and business owners throughout Illinois who pay $350 a year to subscribe to Capitol Fax, the two-to-three page daily faxed newsletter that’s unknown in most of the state but ubiquitous in the Statehouse.
How many subscribers there are remains a guarded secret. Miller reveals only that there are fewer than 2,000; his home on Lake Springfield suggests it’s maybe not many fewer. In any case, friends and foes alike acknowledge that the newsletter generally delivers on its mantra of “Political Intelligence.’’
“In caucus, people will say, ‘Let’s keep this confidential, I don’t want to read this in Capitol Fax,’ and afterward, sure enough, there’s a special edition’’ revealing what went on in caucus, says state Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. “He’s obviously got his sources.’’
“The guy has an uncanny ability to get people to talk to him,’’ says lobbyist Tom Swoik. “He comes up with things; I don’t know where the hell he gets them.’’
“In my world, he’s essential. People read him,’’ says lobbyist Thom Serafin, who admits it “gives me heartburn’’ when his own clients and issues are topics in the newsletter. Miller, a former door-to-door salesman (“Better journalism training than anything,’’ he insists), started Capitol Fax in 1993 with $7,000 borrowed from his parents.
At the time, the newsletter’s mix of information, analysis, opinion and even advice to the state’s political leaders was unusual-bordering-on-sacrilegious under the rigid rules of mainstream political journalism. Today, those very media are morphing at the edges into something like Capitol Fax, with snarky blogs, real-time insider political analysis and other relatively new offerings.
“I think Rich was probably ahead of the curve,’’ says Don Craven of the Illinois Press Association, “and the curve is catching up with him.’’
Miller, 47, was born in Kankakee and spent his early years on a farm in Iroquois County. His mother was a U.S. Defense Department employee, which led the family to live in Utah and Germany. He later returned to Illinois, attended what was then Sangamon State University in Springfield (now the University of Illinois Springfield), worked construction, did telemarketing, sold knives and fire alarms.
By 1990, Miller was working for Hannah Information Services, which gathered and disseminated legislative information for lobbyists in Springfield. He wrote a series for Hannah that year on the Republicans’ inability to make a dent in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s Democratic majority.
“It was called, ‘What’s wrong with Lee Daniels?’ [then the GOP House leader]. ... Nobody else was writing about it except me,’’ Miller said. “I’d get warnings almost every day from lobbyists connected to Daniels saying, ‘Lay off.’ I thought it was a compliment because nobody knew who I was. It made me.’’
Daniels, now in private life in the Chicago suburbs, still pauses when asked about Miller and his reporting.
“When I was there, many times, he engaged in personal issues. ... I felt he was unfair in some of his criticism,’’ Daniels says. “He’s much better than he was in the past. He’s much more observant, much more in-depth. ... He is expressing a lot of the frustration that those of us in the general public feel’’ toward government.
For Miller, the Daniels showdown convinced him there was a market for that kind of ground-level political reporting. In April 1993, he quit Hannah and started Capitol Fax. He initially charged $250 a year, luring customers through direct-mail marketing and sending the daily fax out himself. By October of that year, he had paid back the loan from his parents and bought a house.
As the client base rose, he branched out with an Internet version of his newsletter. He moved to Chicago for a while, commuting to Springfield during legislative sessions.
He cobbled together a group of small newspapers to fund reporting trips to Kosovo (in 1999) and Baghdad (in 2003). During the latter trip, he met his wife, Wasan Azoo Miller, in what he describes as a “wartime romance.’’ She persuaded him to move from Chicago back to Springfield, to a shorter commute and a bigger home.
The house is a spacious, immaculate structure full of collected art, antiques and political paraphernalia. A 30-acre nature preserve borders one side of the property; on the other is Lake Springfield.
There are views everywhere, except from the small, cluttered corner office on the second floor from which Capitol Fax is produced on a widescreen Mac monitor. Miller’s view is mainly of the William Crook Jr. drawing of the state Capitol that hangs over his desk. “I like it that way. If you’ve got a view, you get distracted by the damned view.’’
Miller spends most mornings there in the viewless room, writing the newsletter, monitoring the blog and gathering information. If the legislature is in session, he’ll drive to the Capitol by midafternoon and stop by a series of what he calls “watering holes.’’
“It’s like hunting — you know, you go to a watering hole, and you wait for the animals to come to you. You don’t go out in the middle of the desert searching for animals.’’ The watering holes include the brass rail outside the House and Senate chambers, certain hallways, certain lawmakers’ offices, “the little nooks and crannies of the Capitol.’’ And, later, the bars.
“I try to keep it to one drink to two of theirs. If I can keep my one-to-two ratio going, you never know what kind of stuff you can hear.’’
Critics on both the left and right have accused Miller of ideological bias over the years. What a careful reading of Capitol Fax mostly reveals is a balanced contempt for all sides of the spectrum.
On legislative Democrats: “[They] seem so concerned with doing nothing that might endanger their grip on power ... that they’ve failed to notice that their failure to do anything at all is endangering their existence as a majority party.’’
On Republican primary candidates: “‘Tea party fever’ has firmly grasped [them] by the throat these days. ... They’re so fearful of being attacked from the right that they’re in danger of making themselves unelectable when the rest of the electorate enters the picture.’’
On Quinn’s handling of the $500 million borrowing plan: “[His] office has been needlessly secretive and grossly incompetent during this entire process. ... Heck, Rod Blagojevich was able to get a short-term borrowing plan approved ... after he was arrested by the FBI.’’
On GOP gubernatorial front-runner Jim Ryan, whose campaign mistakenly claimed an endorsement it didn’t actually get: “[He] apparently has no resources to hire a decent researcher.’’
“[Miller] is not an ideologue for any cause,’’ suggests lobbyist Todd Vandermyde. “He just has no patience for stupidity in government.’’
In addition to freewheeling analysis, Miller is known for his forays into psychoanalysis. The personalities, perceived insecurities and gleaned motives of newsmakers routinely wind up in Capitol Fax right alongside factual accounts of their actions. Michael Madigan in particular has been on Miller’s couch for years.
“The ‘why’ is really important,’’ Miller insists. “Some of these guys get pretty predictable. Rod [Blagojevich] got predictable. It’s like, ‘three, two, one, boom! Yep, I knew that was coming.’ (Cackling laugh.) ... He was crazy. God, he was fun to cover. It was like watching a perpetual train wreck.’’
There are two questions that everyone who spends much time in the Statehouse eventually wonders about: What is Mike Madigan thinking? And how much does Rich Miller make?
Admit it, you’ve done the math. Three-hundred-fifty dollars a year per subscription. Legions of potential subscribers — lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, special interest groups from Rockford to Cairo. Overhead expenses which, it’s tempting to imagine, encompass not much more than a fax machine and a bar stool.
The math isn’t actually that simple. The blog that Miller produces now in conjunction with the newsletter has turned the “fax’’ into an increasingly high-tech operation. He steadfastly refuses to talk dollars or even numbers of subscribers, except to say it’s “not as many as most people think.’’
“If I had 2,000 subscribers ... I’d make $700,000 a year,’’ he notes. “If I made $700,000 a year, I’d live in a better house than this.’’
What shows up on the state comptroller’s contract database alone — presumably a sliver of the whole — has totaled between $20,000 and $26,000 a year, for each of the past five years, in subscription fees from the General Assembly, the governor’s office, the state Supreme Court and other agencies and offices throughout state government. State campaign records show that political candidates, parties and PACs have kicked in an additional $175,000 over the past decade in subscriptions.
That’s not to mention business from potentially hundreds of other sources that wouldn’t show up on either of those lists: “You got the big corporations — all the big corporations subscribe — all the major unions, all the congressional districts, municipalities, townships, counties, school districts,’’ says Miller.
And that’s in addition to mainstream media subscribers, who tend to see him as either a visionary in their industry, or a pretender, or sometimes both.
“He does it in a manner that is sometimes entertaining, sometimes informative, sometimes aggravating,’’ says Craven, of the Illinois Press Association. “Should community newspapers try to match the way [Miller] does business? No. Can we learn something from it? Yes.’’
In fact, Statehouse reporters from newspapers all over Illinois now routinely mix news, analysis and in some cases out-and-out opinion in the blog posts that augment most papers’ government coverage these days. To credit (or blame) Miller for that universal trend would be ridiculous, of course. But there’s no disputing he was doing it years before the rest of them. The name of his company — “Ahead of Our Time Publishing’’— now seems prescient.
“I’m always a little cautious of him,’’ says Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno, who learned the hard way about the rules (or lack of them) under what she sees as “a new type of journalism’’ embodied by Miller.
Radogno was challenging an incumbent state senator in her first Republican primary when Miller called her at home to ask her about the race. She was at her stove and spoke too freely. “I said some fairly unflattering stuff’’ about her opponent, she recalls, laughing about it now. “I was used to the news media kind of screening what I’d say, cleaning it up ... [but] it was in Capitol Fax the next day, verbatim.’’
To Miller’s fans, that kind of no-holds-barred, total-immersion reporting is what makes Capitol Fax urgent reading. “He’s different from you others in the mainstream media,’’ says Vandermyde, the lobbyist. “He actually spends time mixing and mingling with the politicos. He doesn’t just come in for the issue du jour.’’
As the mainstream media edge into Miller’s turf with analytical blogs, Miller is edging into theirs, with a regular column in the Chicago Sun-Times and a syndicated version of Capitol Fax in scores of smaller papers. Meanwhile, he’s expanding his online operations, focusing more on video.
“I know my subscribers. They want one ‘spit-take’ a day. You’ve got to give them one of those where they’re drinking their coffee, and they spit it out all over the fax. It’s like, ‘Where the f--- did that come from?’” he says. “They’re all junkies, man. That’s why they do this — they’re political junkies.’’
Kevin McDermott is the Springfield bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Illinois Issues, February 2010