Requiem for a heavyweight: Mike Madigan and legislative leadership

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From a good government perspective, the legislative leader’s job is to represent their “caucus”—that is, their party in their chamber—to others in the policymaking process. It would be virtually impossible to get anything done with 118 independent lawmakers talking at once, so they elect leaders from among their members to represent them in discussions with the other caucuses and the governor on the most important issues facing the state.  

From a practical political perspective, the legislative leader’s job is to gain or maintain a majority in their chamber. This means, first, working for the reelection of all their caucus members, something that lawmakers very much appreciate. While lawmakers also want a strong legislative branch, they typically elect their leaders based on their personal electoral goals. Beyond help with their own races, the aggregate goal of holding a majority of seats also helps their members. In our two-party system, majorities rule, especially in the legislature.  

In the end, the downfall of long-term legislative leaders occurs when these goals get out of balance. A leader who is good at running elections may not be good at representing the caucus, and vice versa. Winning elections and winning the hearts and minds of the public and other policymakers require different skill sets.  

Madigan built his lengthy tenure as Speaker the old-fashioned way, through hard work, skill, and good luck. He was excellent at both jobs of leadership for many years. He developed a strong staff, implemented an effective campaign program, and systematically accumulated power and control in his office. And he was lucky to be doing this just as the changing demographics of Illinois favored his party. As he orchestrated the Democrats’ increasing success in the once-solidly GOP Chicago suburbs, he was hailed as a political genius by friend and foe alike.  

What caused Madigan’s downfall this month? Generally, he was a victim of his own success. He lasted so long that he became an effective boogie man used by the GOP to tar the entire Democratic ballot. He lasted so long that he became out of touch with his caucus, many of whom weren’t even born when he was first elected. He lasted so long that a merely mediocre performance in the once-GOP-dominated suburbs raised questions about his electoral skills. And he lasted so long that the accumulation of scandal swirling around him, particularly the recent ComEd scandal, while never touching Madigan directly, weakened him further as both an electoral and legislative player.  

In the end, it was this inability to perform even more political legerdemain in the suburbs that led to his final curtain. As in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it was not his enemies who took Madigan from the stage, but his allies. When Sen. Dick Durbin called for Madigan’s removal the day after November’s election, the die was cast. Followed quickly by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, and Rep. Mike Quigley, the Democratic establishment not based in Springfield had found that the downside of Madigan had finally outweighed its upside.  

Strong legislative leadership is vital to a balanced state government. The dilemma of legislative leadership is that long-term power can lead to corruption and bias. Like Muhammed Ali as he stepped into the ring with Larry Holmes in 1980, Madigan could/should have retired earlier on his own terms. But one of the hardest things to do is to walk away when you’re on top. 

Christopher Z. Mooney is a professor in the department of political science and the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

via Crain’s Chicago Business

January 19, 2021 at 03:56PM

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