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Illinois faces major challenges amid COVID fallout as Speaker Madigan struggles to hold onto power

Illinois faces major challenges amid COVID fallout as Speaker Madigan struggles to hold onto power

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CHICAGO — One of the best examples of Michael Madigan’s deft use of power quickly unfolded more than 30 years ago. In just six hours, the Illinois House speaker orchestrated the introduction and approval of an income tax hike, using only Democratic votes.

Then-Gov. Jim Thompson was caught by surprise. Madigan had rebuffed the Republican chief executive on the tax hike for two years, and suddenly, it was on his desk to sign. Said Thompson of Madigan’s maneuver: “It is bold. It’s audacious. And it might even be diabolical.”

Bold. Audacious. Diabolical. Decades later, the late Thompson’s words are viewed in much of the Capitol as apt monikers for Madigan, 78. But a new term has been added to the list: embattled.

His onetime closest confidant and former ComEd executives have been indicted as part of a scheme in which federal prosecutors allege money and do-nothing jobs went to Madigan’s allies in exchange for help with state legislation. As a result, his hold on the gavel will be greeted with Democratic opposition for the first time in his 36 years as speaker.

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Speaker Michael Madigan works the floor as the Illinois House of Representatives convenes at the Bank of Springfield Center, Jan. 8, 2021.

Madigan’s moment of uncertainty comes as Illinois faces one of the most challenging times in its history.

COVID-19 restrictions have damaged the state’s economy and tax revenues, contributing to a $4 billion deficit for the budget year that ends June 30. At the same time, the state will need an economic development plan to help reinvigorate its businesses and labor force as more people are vaccinated and things open up.

In the statehouse, lawmakers are demanding more say over measures related to the pandemic. There’s a push for criminal justice and policing reforms, issues that have only grown in public importance since being put on the back burner during May’s abbreviated session.

For the politicians, there’s also the highly sensitive topic of redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative boundaries to reflect U.S. census results. Madigan has long been a master cartographer, using a long lens that over decades has led to growing Democratic influence in the once Republican suburbs. Democrats, who control the General Assembly, wield the power to draw a map that protects and increases their majorities at the expense of Republicans.

Known as “The Sphinx” for his tight-lipped public persona and “The Velvet Hammer” for his ability to quietly remove the opposition, Madigan also has been “The Gatekeeper,” the sole authority to decide what legislation advances or dies in Springfield depending on his personal and political agenda.

Now, three challengers have emerged, and the prospect of a drawn-out fight looms over who will run the House, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 73-45.

“There’s never a perfect time to make a transition,” said Christopher Mooney, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Sometimes, crises are exactly the time for new leadership. Things need to have a new perspective.”

Madigan, speaker since 1983 with the exception of two years in the mid-1990s when Republicans gained control of the chamber, has been able to recast himself and his political ideology as times have changed.

Once a social conservative reflecting his Southwest Side 13th Ward Catholic upbringing, Madigan has overseen expanded abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the abolishment of the death penalty. Once a proponent of uniforms in public schools and an end to teacher tenure, he has embraced public employee unions as political allies.

But there are questions of whether the times have caught up with Madigan and his success in expanding the Democrats’ House majority has opened him up for challengers.

“Perhaps his biggest failure was not adjusting to the changing times in terms of the #MeToo issue and the growing demands of the progressive caucus and a younger, more female and more suburban caucus,” said Charles Wheeler III, a former veteran statehouse reporter and retired director of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

The first sense of uprising in Madigan’s caucus came in 2018 when he faced issues regarding sexual harassment in both his political and governmental operation. He discarded veteran political operatives, including his longtime chief of staff, appointed more women to senior posts and promised to do better to prevent any recurrences.

At the same time, frustration with Madigan has been building as his members have become younger and more progressive, straining under his autocratic style, which lets members advance only a few of their bills per session.

“He wins where they shouldn’t be winning — sometimes because of skill, sometimes experience, money, the map,” Mooney said. But as the party becomes even more diverse, adding moderate suburbanites and others, “it’s hard unruly, and very difficult to lead,” he said.

Women comprise almost half of the House Democratic caucus, many representing the once GOP-dominated suburbs. The three announced challengers for speaker are women: Kathleen Willis of Addison, Ann Williams of Chicago and Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego.

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Committeeman Michael Madigan, 13th Ward, speaks before the park board on July 28, 1970.

Willis is a member of Madigan’s leadership team who now opposes his reelection. Williams is one of the co-founders of the House Democratic Women’s Caucus, created during the #MeToo movement in 2018.

One place where Madigan has sought to adapt to changing times is the issue of patronage. But it’s also the issue that has become the speaker’s most serious personal and political impediment.

He was born into the world of ward politics in the bungalow belt near Midway Airport, where his father was a Democratic precinct captain. Madigan held patronage jobs while becoming a trusted part of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s machine.

In 1969, Madigan was elected the youngest ward boss in the city at the age of 27. A year later, he was elected to the Illinois House and as a delegate to the convention that wrote the state’s 1970 Constitution. His role for Daley at Con-Con, as it was called, was to keep an eye on another delegate — Daley’s son, the future Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The Tribune has spent the last decade chronicling how the confluence of Madigan’s speakership and power flow through patronage and his practice as a property tax assessment appeals lawyer.

Madigan and his allies have a vast network of foot soldiers on public payrolls. Many of those people work on campaigns for the very House seats that allow the speaker to stay in power. In turn, that control of the House is key to helping Madigan bring in clients at his law firm, which handles lucrative property tax appeals on some of Chicago’s biggest buildings.

Starting in 2010, the Tribune published the “The Madigan Rules,” a first-of-its-kind, yearslong investigation that exposed how the speaker built his political empire and law practice, revealing how those two careers repeatedly intersected. The report found that in some cases Madigan took public actions that benefited his private clients, though the speaker said his “personal code of conduct” ensured he maintained “high ethical standards.”

As direct political patronage has been reduced in recent years due to court-ordered restrictions on political hiring in government, politicians have turned to the private sector. That is where the problems developed that most threaten Madigan’s status as speaker.

In July, Commonwealth Edison agreed to pay a $200 million fine for engaging in a scheme to try to win Madigan’s favor by awarding the speaker’s allies jobs and contracts. Madigan has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the scheme.

But Madigan’s top confidant, former lawmaker and lobbyist Michael McClain of Quincy, was indicted along with three others, including former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, of participating in the influence and bribery scheme. All four have pleaded not guilty.

The ComEd probe also has put a spotlight on another practice that’s gone on at the Capitol under Madigan: the cycle of House Democratic staffers and friendly lawmakers who leave and then land a hefty stable of lobbying clients in part based on their perceived access to the speaker.

Those lobbyists often become part of a campaign fundraising network that provides money to help Madigan-backed candidates. Though they’re not drawing a government salary, those lobbyists also contribute to the policies enacted in Springfield that affect the pockets of taxpayers.

Some leading Democrats attributed several stinging defeats in November to public distaste for Madigan. Among the party’s losses at the polls were Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated-rate income tax amendment; state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride’s retention; and Betsy Dirksen Londrigan’s challenge to Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis in central Illinois.

Those losses, as well as the inability to make expected gains in the General Assembly with President Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, have cast Madigan, who also serves as state Democratic chairman, as a detriment and distraction to the party’s overall goals, say those opposing his reelection.

So far, 19 House Democrats of 73 in the new General Assembly have publicly said they will not support Madigan for another term as speaker. That would leave him six votes shy of the 60 needed to gain the gavel.

Madigan has received the backing of the House Democratic Black Caucus, with only one of its 22 members, state Rep. Maurice West of Rockford, opposing the speaker. While Madigan was endorsed by 10 members of the House Democratic Latinx Caucus, four members oppose his reelection.

Since no official business can be conducted by the House until a speaker is elected, a lengthy balloting process could ensue while pressing matters such as the state budget and pandemic recovery are held in abeyance. Madigan, some Democrats contend privately, is counting at the very least on attrition to eventually return him as speaker as issues mount.

A bitter fight for speaker could cause short-term splits within the diverse Democratic majority, but it’s questionable how long or impactful they might be.

“There’s some risk that a protracted battle could leave hard feelings among the House majority, but I’d like to believe that all factions share enough common ground and find what seems to be the current GOP minority philosophy so repugnant that the major priorities of the governor and the caucus can be advanced,” Wheeler said.


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