NILES, Mich. — For decades, Mike Noonan was the consummate Illinois political insider. He aggressively worked on Democratic campaigns in all sorts of communities and was a big player in the behind-the-scenes jostling over legislation at the state Capitol.
But a corruption scandal ended Madigan’s long reign last year. And since then, Noonan has left Illinois entirely.
Last summer, Noonan began what he hopes will be a mellower, second career as an owner of a organic marijuana farm and certified “ganjier” in this small city in southwest Michigan.
Noonan, 54, says he’s done with politics in Illinois and is dedicating himself fully to fighting for “the craft weed revolution” in his new home on the other side of Lake Michigan.
“Life has really transitioned, and all for the better,” Noonan says, wearing a smock in the retail shop of his Southland Farms in Niles, Mich., about 100 miles from Chicago.
Noonan refers to the shop at Southland Farms as a “budtique” — reflecting the business’ aim of providing an upscale experience and “quality weed” for cannabis consumers.
Next to the cash register at the front of the store, Noonan proudly displays the certificate he earned as a ganjier — a certified connoisseur of fine weed. He passed a course in northern California to become one of what are fewer than 200 ganjiers in the world, trained to guide cannabis users much as a sommelier advises wine drinkers.
Although he was not personally implicated in the Illinois corruption scandal, the native of Chicago’s south suburbs says he felt it was the right time for him to leave the political scene.
“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Maybe I wasn’t the best at identifying the people who shouldn’t be in politics, because obviously, I still like and care for plenty of folks who are now seen as scoundrels.”
Noonan said his decision to abandon Springfield for Michigan ran contrary to the conventional wisdom motivating many power players in Illinois. Many of his closest allies in Democratic circles would grind through periods of turmoil by telling themselves, “The key to success in politics is staying in the game,” he said.
“That advice was so on-point because I see, especially in Springfield, you can survive if you just stay engaged,” he said. “But for me, it was time to move on. Because I had accomplished a lot, and I felt good about what I had done.”
Noonan began as a staffer for Madigan in 1994 and managed state legislative campaigns for allies of the longtime House speaker and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. He came to wider prominence 20 years ago by managing the first campaign for Illinois attorney general of the boss’ daughter, Lisa Madigan.
During the younger Madigan’s tightly fought election in 2002, Noonan relished popping up outside her Republican rival’s news conferences to offer instant rebuttals for reporters attending those events. He was so good at it that the Republicans griped about “getting Noonan-ed.”
During the 2002 attorney general’s race, Noonan told the Chicago Sun-Times he had three hobbies: fishing, the Chicago Bears and politics. But even before going into politics, he had a deep appreciation also for marijuana — which was illegal in Illinois at the time.
“Lots and lots of people have different secrets, so I’ll tell you that I have used cannabis to deal with my issues since 1986,” Noonan says.
He says the famously fastidious Madigan became aware of his weed habit at one point relatively early in his career with the Illinois Democrats.
“In 1996, a competitor in the political landscape went and reported me for using cannabis to the speaker’s operation,” Noonan says.
Noonan says he expected to lose his job over his pot smoking. His supervisor in the Madigan organization informed him he would not be fired.
“I had been a hard-working guy and I think, more importantly, I had been successful for them,” Noonan says. “They asked me to go out and work hard and help get people elected, and I was helping people get elected.
“And so the reprimand that I got from my boss at the time was, ‘You’ve been reported. It doesn’t seem to be affecting your work at all. See you tomorrow.’”
Noonan also believes Madigan gave him a pass for his weed use because he understood that, “Nobody is just one thing. And people can be good, and they can be bad.” A lawyer for Madigan declined to comment on Noonan’s recollection of that incident.
ComEd scandal rocks Springfield
After helping Lisa Madigan win statewide office, Noonan followed the usual path of successful Democratic Party operatives and Michael Madigan staffers, becoming a lobbyist in Springfield for mostly corporate clients.
Among the companies he represented in the Illinois Capitol was Commonwealth Edison. The giant power utility admitted in 2020 that it had hired Madigan allies as consultants and paid them for little or no work to curry favor with the speaker, who helped pass legislation that padded ComEd’s profits dramatically.
Madigan resigned last year after a record run as speaker and has been indicted in the scandal, but he has denied any wrongdoing and his case is pending in federal court.
According to federal court records and sources, Noonan’s then-business partner Victor Reyes won a contract for his law firm with ComEd, allegedly as part of the electric company’s efforts to please Madigan. Reyes has not been charged with a crime, and Noonan says he had nothing to do with Reyes’ law firm.
Noonan says he was “very disillusioned” with Illinois politics by the end of his career but does not want to criticize any of his former co-workers and friends.
The situation hurt business for the Roosevelt Group, the lobbying and public-relations business Noonan owned with Reyes in downtown Chicago. Noonan says he sold his stake in the Roosevelt Group, and records show he canceled his registration as a lobbyist in Illinois in July 2021.
“I was associated with a lot of people who aren’t in politics any longer, many of them because the federal government decided they shouldn’t be in politics any longer,” he said.
At that point, he said he decided, “I need another act.”
A new career in the weed business
After decades helping establishment politicians and big business interests in Illinois, Noonan says he is now one of the little guys trying to provide a classier, higher-quality alternative to the products on offer from big marijuana interests.
Everything in his store in Michigan is grown on site, from seed. Behind the budtique, Southland Farms has five climate-controlled rooms full of dozens of highly pungent, leafy marijuana plants. All the products are processed on the premises and sold exclusively there.
“There’s a culture here in southwest Michigan of not just growing great apples and great fruits and vegetables, but also growing great weed,” Noonan says.
To become a ganjier, he underwent six months of online training, three days of in-person classes and a day-long exam in Humboldt County, Calif., in July. That same month, Southland Farms opened its door. Noonan has two business partners, including his cousin.
Noonan says he wants the shop to closely resemble a winery or a craft brewery.
“You can walk into a retail store in the cannabis space and immediately see which kind of green the owner likes more —–- is it the green they put into the bank or is it the green they put in the bong?” he says.
“And although we like them both, the one that we put in the bong is way more important to us and our customers.”
In Noonan’s office at Southland Farms, there’s just a single reminder of his 25 years in politics in his home state: a “24 hours to victory” sign from an election-eve rally for Todd Stroger’s campaign for Cook County Board president in 2006. Stroger won narrowly, after a then-U.S. senator named Barack Obama appeared at the rally.
Noonan says the sign reminds him to “just keep fighting ‘till the end” — and to not hesitate to ask for help from friends in times of need.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.