Most of the career retrospectives and profiles written on former House Speaker Michael Madigan, who resigned from the House Thursday, will likely fit into the narrative about the regimented, cold blooded, calculating political tactician who ruled the House with an iron fist.
This isn’t one of those profiles.
The Illinoize spoke with multiple former aides of Madigan, from legal to issue staffers to those that worked in the high ranks of his campaign operation. Most asked not to be identified by name out an effort to keep Madigan the focus of stories written about him.
The consensus from the people we spoke to that worked for Madigan? What the public sees isn’t who the longtime Speaker and powerbroker really is.
“He’s a tremendous human being. The years that I worked for him were the highlight of my career,” said Rob Uhe, now a lobbyist who was Madigan’s Chief Counsel and Parliamentarian from 1998-2007.
“I was extremely fortunate to work for Speaker Madigan for many years,” said Jim Morphew, another former Chief Legal Counsel to the Speaker, serving from 1985 to 1992. “At a young age, I learned by his example the value of hard work and attention to detail. It was the best job I ever had.”
Madigan’s commitment to details was a theme many former staffers talked about.
“He would read everything you gave him. He was a sponge. He tried to absorb everything, said a former issues staff member. “He would question, “Why? Give me a memo on this. I want to understand this.” When he would read it, he would come back with circles, red marks, question marks, and notes in the margins.”
“There’s probably a misconception that he’s not open to ideas and input from other people, but that’s just not true,” said Uhe.
“Mike never gave you an assignment that there wasn’t a purpose for,” said a former staffer. “He was not a guy who gave you an assignment just to keep you busy. If you got an assignment, you may not know why he was asking you to do it, but there was a reason why. And, believe me, he would read the memo that you wrote.”
A former campaign staffer said while Republicans tried for years to beat Madigan, they never worked harder than the former Speaker.
“The fact of the matter is that the caricature of him trying to conquer the world is bulls—t,” said the staffer. “He’s working a lot harder than the other side ever has, ever, including when it was their map. It was the Republican map in the 90’s, it was their map, they drew it. They took the boundaries, and we won all of those campaigns but ’94.”
The political staffer says Republicans were never as organized and strategic about campaigns.
“The fault of the other side is that when they don’t win and he does, they blame [other things.] But, the fact is, they’re never going to work as hard as him, he said. “They never strategize. They never put it together.”
He says that was due to Madigan’s attention to details while other political strategists were doing other things.
“He would just outwork people. These guys would go sit at the bar or something like that and [be] talking about strategy of the campaign, he wouldn’t do that,” the staffer said. “He would come up with a plan and make sure that it got executed. He made sure you got the funding for it. He made sure that if Republicans did something, we were on top of it all the time. We would rarely get behind the eight ball on a campaign.”
That attention to detail served him well with a divided caucus, says a former legal staffer.
“Mike was a listener. Mike listened and worked and worked. And he was able to put downstate Democrats on things for Chicago and vice versa,” he said. “In my estimation, he was as good as it comes in forging compromise and keeping a Democratic caucus together on a lot of issues where there wasn’t a lot of ideological or philosophical similarity between Chicago Democrat and downstate Democrat on issues.”
For those who don’t know Madigan, he often comes across to the public as robotic, or even on the verge of being combative. But for Uhe, the real Madigan was much different.
“He has a sense of humor. We spent, oftentimes, six to eight hours in a day in a room together going over issues. Those meetings were always focused. Everybody was always focused. But there was plenty of camaraderie, there was plenty of support,” Uhe said. “He’s a person that cares about people and certainly cared about the people around him. The conversations we had were very human if you will. Very normal and very enjoyable. It’s just a side of him the public, unfortunately, didn’t get a chance to see.”
But the political staffer we spoke with said Madigan was demanding of his staff.
“You would sit around the table, he would expect you to know what you knew and if you didn’t know, you’d tell him,” he said. “You’d never lie to him. You would just say ‘I’ll go try to find that out.”
“On a personal level, he’s a really good guy. He cares about you, he is not that cold, steely guy,” the same staffer said. “On a personal level, when he gets to know you, he’s a good guy. He cared about what was going on in your family, he would know if you had kids and would ask about them. He is a sports guy, so he’d bring up something about Notre Dame or the White Sox.”
While Madigan spent countless hours around a conference table in his now former third floor office in the State Capitol, Uhe said you always knew when someone important would call his office.
“When I worked for him, we would be in these meetings and a call would come in from one of his children,” he said. “No matter what, no matter who was in the meeting, he would take the call from his children. He would speak to them very lovingly. He was always very patient and always took that time. He was always very close to his children. He’s a tremendous family person.”
Another former staffer shared a similar story from the waning days of the legislative session years earlier.
“I walked in to see the Speaker. I walked into his office. The session was going late that night, and there he was doing spelling words with one of his kids and math with the other. I’ll never forget that,” the former staff member said. “People are coming in talking about a ton of issues. He cares deeply about his family. And people would never see that. He’s not this autocratic, ice water in the veins, Clint Eastwood. He just isn’t a guy who wore his emotions on his sleeve.”
But for these people who know Madigan and have worked with him, it begs the obvious question: for one of the least popular politicians in state history, why didn’t we see more of this good guy the staffers rave about?
“I don’t think he ever thought he would get a fair shake because the Chicago Tribune wanted him out from early on,” said the political staffer. “The editorial board would do nothing but f–k with him. After a while, it wasn’t worth the time or effort to try to rehabilitate him or to talk to the media because, I think, he never thought he was going to get a fair shake.”
“Mike enjoys politics. That’s his life,” said a former staffer. “I think Mike Madigan is a shy man. You might laugh at that, but he is not a guy who is comfortable gladhanding, working a room. He is not a guy who likes a lot of long speeches, giving a lot of speeches, he doesn’t like a lot of attention on him, it’s not his desire to walk around a work a room. It’s not in his DNA.”
His absence from media coverage, events, editorial boards, Chicago radio shows, and other opportunities to help his image with the public may have played a role in the cartoon version that became the talking point used by Republicans and other political opportunists. There was even a parody account at one point that satirized Madigan’s daily routine of eating an apple.
“He is, in some respects, a person who likes routine. We all do. So he had some routines. The apple is one example,” said Uhe. “Yes, he would eat an apple every day. Many times, during our meetings, he would slice an apple as we’re talking. But, it’s not as though it was some abnormal thing. It’s just kind of weird how that gets blown out of proportion.”
The radical discipline some often joked about wasn’t far from the truth, in some instances, at least. For many years there have been stories that he sits at the same table at Saputo’s Italian Restaurant in downtown Springfield every session night. (That’s true, by the way, according to these staffers.) Before Saputo’s it was Baur’s Restaurant just south of the Capitol where he would eat the same dish of Dover Sole every single night.
“It’s part of who he was,” Uhe said. “It was overblown in the sense it was used to create a caricature that was used to demonize him, and that was unfair.”
Though, in the end, it all comes down to politics, or public policy, to be more specific. Republicans often abused Madigan as a tyrant trying to ruin the state and more liberal Democrats would accuse him of being more interested in keeping his legislative majority at all costs instead of enacting progressive legislation.
“What the public doesn’t see is where you’ve got a caucus of members who all come from different parts of the state, different walks of life, and all have different priorities” Uhe said. “What people fail to see is that, in his role, he’s responsible to them, to his caucus. All of the many thousands of decisions made over the years reflect that input. He was always very attentive to his caucus members’ interest and the political needs that they had.”
But were those decisions made with politics in mind?
“It was never apparent to me that he would set aside the interest of good public policy only in order to achieve some political result,” Uhe said. “Public policy is a love of his.”
After Madigan ascended to the Speaker’s office in 1983, he only lost it for two years, in the Republican wave in 1994, where the GOP rode a national wave into Congress and Republican Governor Jim Edgar won re-election by nearly 30 percentage points.
But the former political staffer says it was a total of 2,000 votes combined in the 13 seats the Democrats lost to give away the chamber for two years. In ensuing years, Madigan has raised dump truck loads full of campaign cash for Democrats.
“I think he’s a man of his word,” said the campaign staffer on Madigan’s fundraising success. “And I think that people understand that if you give him money, it’s not going to go to trinkets and trash. It’s going to be for voter contact. People back winners. And he has proven time and time again that he can win.”
That said, after a 2020 election where Democrats held their supermajority, it was the cloud of corruption that led to Madigan’s demise. An ongoing bribery scandal, in which Madigan has not been criminally charged, hangs over him. Madigan has repeatedly denied he did anything wrong.
“That’s what you do, you help people,” said a former staffer about Madigan’s job recommendations at the core of the scandal. “You try to find them a job. But he never went to somebody and said, ‘hire this guy, just pay him some money, I’ll help you with legislation’ he’s saying that’s not what happened here.”
“He’s a man of tremendous ethics and principles,” said Uhe. “I never saw examples of overextension, abuse of power. Never.”
“The principles, the idea of ‘you help people’ that’s in the soul, that’s in your gut, that’s what you do, that’s what you did, that’s what you came from, said a former staffer, trying to explain Madigan’s thinking on his actions. “There’s nothing wrong with that. He never asked anybody not to do a day’s work. He never asked anybody to pay somebody off. And he wouldn’t tell someone ‘if you do this, I’m gonna pass this bill.” That’s how angry I think he gets with this stuff.”
No matter the way the investigation concludes, the now 78-year-old Madigan is out of office for the first time in 50 years.
“I think he likes baseball, loves to read history, loves books. He likes his privacy,” said a former staffer. “He’s not a guy who goes out to a barbeque in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. That’s not Mike Madigan. He’s a pretty shy guy. He’s funny. Has a sense of humor. But he’s not a guy who’s gregarious and yuks it up with 12 guys at the bar all night. That’s never been Mike Madigan. I don’t know what he’s going to do. This is what he has done, this is his life. He doesn’t play a lot of golf. I don’t know what he does.”
His loyal former staffers are split if Madigan stayed around too long.
“Somebody can probably make a pretty good case here that Mike probably stayed too long,” one staffer said. “I think the world changed. It’s a fair criticism.”
“I would never say that he stayed too long,” said Uhe. “In my judgement, he left at a time he felt was appropriate. He was not power hungry for the sake of power. If he were, you would see a different type of individual. He is a humble person when you think about it.”
His longtime political aide says Madigan appears to be at peace.
“I think he’s come to terms with it, but I don’t think this is the way he wanted it to end,” he said.
In fact, it may be harder for loyal former Madigan staffers to come to grip with the end of his era.
“Watching that take place, knowing how long he had been in public office and all the things he did over the years, the people he helped and issues he handled, it was really hard for me, personally, to watch, said a staffer turned lobbyist on Madigan’s final days in office. “I really wish he hadn’t been summarily dismissed like that. That was hard for me.”
“It’s kind of hard to put into words,” said Uhe. “It’s surreal that he’s no longer Speaker.”
via The Illinoize
February 19, 2021 at 06:16AM