The man called “the Real Governor of Illinois” by Chicago Magazine is gone as speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, but Michael Madigan’s impact on the institution and the state — good or bad — will remain, observers say.
The new speaker, Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, described what he saw as the Chicago Democrat’s positive influence on Illinois for more than 30 years when Welch was elected Jan. 13 as the chamber’s first Black speaker.
“While our state has many problems, our schools are better, more children have access to health care, and our working-class families can more easily live the American Dream thanks to the strong leadership of Speaker Madigan,” Welch said during his acceptance speech.
Many Republicans were glad to see Madigan go, though he remains a lawmaker amid speculation that he will retire soon from his seat representing the 22nd District on Chicago’s southwest side.
Much of the GOP’s frustration with Madigan and his vice-like grip on the House’s legislative agenda for decades was embodied in the viral video of a Republican lawmaker’s temper exploding on the floor of the Illinois House in 2012.
“Once again, total power in one person’s hands — not the American Way!” state Rep. Mike Bost of Murphysboro screamed into his desk microphone as he protested Democrats’ last-minute plan to overhaul the state pension system without time for Republicans to analyze it and Madigan’s history of exerting control in the chamber.
Bost, 60, now a congressman, threw papers into the air as he continued: “These damn bills that come out of here all the damn time come out of here at the last second, and I have to try to figure out how to vote for my people. Every year we give power to one person. It was not meant that way in the Constitution. He was around when it was written!”
Madigan, 78, the longest-serving leader of a state legislative body in the country, was adept at using the power he wielded as House speaker in 35 of the last 37 years, often preventing Republicans from getting their bills heard in committee or voted on by the full House.
As chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, his success in fundraising for Democratic candidates, his focus on preserving the Democratic majority and his control over the House’s legislative agenda, combined with his work ethic, political awareness and soft-spoken demeanor, earned him the nickname, “The Velvet Hammer.”
Whether his time as speaker made Illinois better or worse is up for debate. Most recently, Madigan was the focus of Republican political advertisements as they successfully defeated an attempt by Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat, to get voters in November to change the state’s flat income tax to a graduated tax based on income.
Attempts to influence legislation favorable to Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest utility, led to a federal investigation and the indictment of several of Madigan’s associates. It also led to the longtime Chicago 13th Ward committeeman losing support for what would have been his 19th two-year term as speaker.
Madigan has denied any wrongdoing in the bribery scheme and hasn’t been charged in the investigation, which continues. He also was involved in controversies including his advocacy for more than 40 students applying for admission to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and patronage hiring at the Metra community rail agency in the Chicago area.
Impact is undeniable
Madigan has tangled with governors, most notably Republican Bruce Rauner and with Democrat Rod Blagojevich, whose impeachment probe Madigan oversaw.
He didn’t respond to The State Journal-Register’s request for an interview for this story. His impact on the legislature and state government as a whole is undeniable, observers said.
“I think his legacy is being the most powerful legislative leader and effective legislative leader,” said Republican Jim Edgar, 74, governor from 1991 to 1999 and a former Illinois secretary of state and state representative from Charleston.
“Madigan, I think, gets blamed for a lot of things and he probably gets credit for a lot of things he didn’t really do or control, but he was first among equals, there’s no doubt about that, in the legislature,” Edgar said.
Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, who sat to Bost’s immediate left during the 2012 outburst, is now House minority leader. Durkin had nothing good to say about Madigan after the Jan. 13 House vote that installed Madigan’s successor, Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, the first Black legislator to become speaker.
Durkin elicited groans from Democrats in a House floor speech immediately after the vote installing Welch and following commendations of Madigan by Welch and others.
After Madigan left the floor, Durkin vented some of his own frustration when he said lawmakers must learn from the past.
Durkin, 59, said Madigan’s legacy “leaves broken promises to Illinois taxpayers, a legacy driven by absolute power and control — so much that his ‘business model’ forced the largest public utility in the state to enter a deferred-prosecution agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago.”
Durkin said Madigan’s legacy “is also one which failed its citizens with unbalanced budgets, broken pension systems, tax increase after tax increase, with nothing to show for it.”
Madigan, who began serving in the House 50 years ago, said in a statement on Jan. 13 that he hopes he left the House Democratic caucus “stronger than when I began.”
He added: “And as I look at the large and diverse Democratic majority we have built — full of young leaders ready to continue moving our state forward, strong women and people of color and members representing all parts of our state — I am confident Illinois remains in good hands.”
Welch, 49, a member of the House since 2013 and an ally of Madigan in the past, said in his speech after being sworn in as speaker that he learned from Madigan.
“I have personally witnessed his steadfast leadership, and I have learned what true leadership looks like, even in the face of very difficult adversity,” Welch said.
In a news conference after the vote to elect Welch as the new speaker, Welch said it wasn’t appropriate for Durkin to raise the ComEd investigation in criticizing Madigan on the House floor. The legal process needs to play out, he said.
“I think Speaker Madigan should be applauded for what he has done for this state,” Welch said. “We have 73 Democrats and we are in the super-majority because of Speaker Madigan. I have learned a lot from his leadership, and there are some things that I would like to continue, but there are some things that I would do differently.”
Longtime political observer Dick Simpson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman, said Madigan’s departure will mark “the beginning of a new era in Illinois politics and government. It’s a little bit uncertain what that will look like.”
Simpson said Madigan, a protege of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, was part of a pattern of what is known in Illinois as “honest graft,” in which a politician’s efforts benefit not only himself but his political party and citizens in general.
Madigan, who can be cordial in person, also can be hard to get to know, Edgar said.
"You can be in a room with Mike and he may not say anything for an hour," Edgar said.
Madigan’s involvement in politics started with his father, who was streets and sanitation superintendent of the 13th Ward. In his 20s, Madigan got a job through his father hauling concrete from construction sites, the Chicago Sun-Times reported based on a 2009 interview Madigan did with archivists from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Leadership modeled after Richard Daley
After attending St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, Madigan completed an undergraduate degree at Notre Dame University and a law degree from Loyola University Chicago.
Madigan’s father introduced him to Mayor Daley at the Lake Shore Club athletic center, and Daley helped Madigan get a job in the city’s law department when Madigan was a law student. Madigan later became a ward committeeman under Daley, and the powerful mayor eventually backed Madigan’s run for the House in 1970, according to the Sun-Times.
Madigan told the archivists, who were compiling an oral history of Daley’s tenure, that he modeled his leadership style after Daley.
And Madigan remained old-school, rarely seen carrying a cell phone and reportedly not checking email regularly. Madigan has been coy when asked whether his lunchtime routine consists of eating a single, sliced apple.
"Remember that, an apple a day keeps the doctor away," Madigan told a pair of reporters in 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune. "It worked, and it still works," Madigan said, adding, "Generally, it’s Golden Delicious, sometimes I think it’s Honeycrisp."
Madigan has been married to Shirley Madigan, a former law firm receptionist in 1976 who is volunteer chairwoman of the board for the Illinois Arts Council. They have four children, including Lisa Madigan, 54, a former state senator and former Illinois attorney general.
Lisa Madigan said in 2014, when she was expected to run for governor, that she wouldn’t run because her adoptive father planned to remain as speaker. She ran for reelection as attorney general instead and won.
"I feel strongly that the state would not be well served by having a governor and speaker of the House from the same family and have never planned to run for governor if that would be the case," she said.
‘Smart guy, really focused’
As speaker, Michael Madigan was criticized for potential conflicts of interest, but never charged with professional or criminal wrongdoing, for his Chicago law firm’s representation of wealthy businesses seeking property tax relief. Madigan denied doing anything unethical or illegal in his law practice.
Madigan also was part of positive change in Illinois, such as the General Assembly’s approval of expanded Medicaid eligibility through the federal Affordable Care Act, Simpson said. More than 600,000 people have gained coverage through that 2014 expansion.
Other observers noted that Madigan didn’t spearhead but presided during the approval of gay marriage in Illinois, expansions of legalized gambling, recreational marijuana legalization, tax increases, the solidification of abortion rights and the abolition of the death penalty.
“There was nobody smarter in Springfield than Madigan the last 20 years," Edgar said. "He really is a smart guy, very focused, so that is why I think he was able to get things done. There’s nothing that passed the General Assembly that Mike Madigan didn’t have his fingerprints on. He didn’t originate a lot of things, but he definitely tinkered with a lot of things as they went through the process.”
But Simpson said Madigan, who helped craft the 1970 Illinois Constitution as a constitutional convention delegate, shares in the blame for Illinois’ massive unfunded pension debt and for the state’s multibillion-dollar budget problems, which have gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If Madigan remains in the House, he will retain influence over Democrats, “but he’s not the kingmaker anymore,” Simpson said. He doubted Madigan would remain head of the state’s Democratic Party.
Edgar said former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a fellow Republican whose stubbornness to compromise led to a two-year budget standoff with Madigan and other Democrats in the General Assembly, should shoulder more of the blame for the state’s latest budget problems. Those problems include a $3.9 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year.
And regarding Madigan’s role in the pension debt, Edgar said: "The pensions were screwed up before Mike Madigan and I came to Springfield. I don’t think he led the charge to make the pensions bad. … I don’t think you can blame him for it any more than anyone else in Springfield."
When asked whether Madigan was corrupt, Edgar responded that he will be amazed if Madigan is indicted in the ComEd scandal.
"It depends on your definition of corruption,” Edgar said. “Did he do anything Illegal? … Madigan was always very careful.”
Edgar said he enjoyed working with Madigan because Madigan could get his diverse caucus to agree on a potential state budget and other issues when legislators and the governor negotiated at the end of a legislative session.
“The thing I liked about dealing with the speaker was, once he said this is where he is, that’s where he was,” Edgar said. “You didn’t have to go back and try to renegotiate with him. … People say he was ruthless. I don’t know if he was ruthless, but he delivered, and he got things done.”
Edgar said Madigan sometimes would drive him “nuts” by delaying making a commitment on a course of action:
“He always was trying to out-wait you, or he wouldn’t tell you what he was thinking. … I can’t imagine playing poker with that guy. You would lose all your money.”
Edgar said Madigan was a genius at keeping track of potential votes on issues in both the House and Senate.
“That’s very important when you’re trying to get something passed or get something killed,” Edgar said. “He was the best counter in the Capitol building.”
Former state Rep. Bill Black, a Republican from Danville who served in the House from 1986 to 2011, said he disagreed strongly and often loudly with Madigan on how the speaker suppressed good ideas from Republicans by burying them in a committee that he controlled, sometimes apparently out of spite.
But Black, 79, said: “I always respected him as an individual. He didn’t come in half-prepared. He was always a gentleman to me.
“He was just very, very disciplined in his patterns. He didn’t go off on tangents.”
Contact Dean Olsen: email@example.com; (217) 836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.
via The State Journal-Register
January 23, 2021 at 07:02AM