Michael Madigan moves on, but his strongman legacy remains

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Those survival traits were only amplified when Madigan lost his job as speaker in the Gingrich Revolution, the midterm elections of 1994. He never forgot. From then on, as never before, his priorities were simple: stay speaker, stay speaker and stay speaker. Even his daughter, Lisa Madigan, learned that lesson when, as Illinois attorney general, her move to run for governor was effectively blocked by her father, who declined to step down as speaker and make way for her to rise.

Yes, Madigan’s ability to elect a House Democratic majority was made easier by demographic changes in the state, particularly in the suburbs, as Illinois became more and more blue. But he knew how to work it, how to keep emerging blocs of African American and female legislators loyal to him.

Madigan also was old-fashioned in another way, too. For him, like generations of Chicago pols, politics and government was a business. In his case, the business was running a property tax appeals business in which just his name on the door attracted lots of clients who figured he could get them the best deal, while his partner, Bud Getzendanner, did the actual work.

Governmentally, Madigan’s record is much more mixed.

He was slow to initiate ethics reform, and was badly damaged a couple of years ago when a sexual harassment scandal claimed his top House lieutenant, Tim Mapes. Though a fiscal conservative and avowed champion of working-class folks, the state’s pension bombshell exploded on his watch, and the jobs those working-class folks needed steadily melted away. Total unfunded pension liabilities during Madigan’s tenure soared from $6 billion to more than $144 billion, according to the Illinois Policy Institute

That’s not all his fault, but if Madigan wasn’t in position to fix the problems, who was?

He generally followed, not led, his caucus on social agenda items such as gay marriage, abortion rights and police reform. He generally got what he wanted from governors—the secret to running Illinois is to “find out what Madigan wants and give it to him,” one Republican governor once confided—but he feuded furiously with fellow Democrat Rod Blagojevich and later Republican Bruce Rauner. The latter did what generations of predecessors could not: He made Madigan a household name—and a political liability to other Democrats.

Still, every mayor of Chicago—and I mean every mayor—worked with Madigan to one degree or another. After all, he could work miracles. Like moving the date of the presidential primary in 2008 to help then-presidential candidate Barack Obama get some early home-state votes. Or passing city pension reform at the behest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Eventually, as happens to almost all politicians, it caught up with him. The Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal, in which Madigan clearly is a target of federal prosecutors but has not been charged with any offense, was the proverbial final straw. He has denied any wrongdoing at every turn.

In the end, things changed, and Madigan didn’t—at least, not enough. That’s awfully reminiscent of the fall of another Democratic Machine power, former U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.

But you have to ask whether Madigan in many ways wasn’t exactly what his caucus, much of the Democratic Party and even some others really wanted: a strongman who knew how to get things done at a time of governmental stasis in Washington, D.C.

“Even in time of disagreement, he encouraged and ensured genuine dialogue and worked in a collaborative fashion,” one key business group, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said in a statement today.  “Throughout his historic service to the state, former House Speaker Mike Madigan proved time and again he was sensitive to the needs of the retail community.”

Interesting thought, as the world turns on. 

via Crain’s Chicago Business

February 18, 2021 at 04:56PM

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