Illinois Democrats Meet Virtually For DNC As Corruption Questions Surround Their Chairman

Even though they’re meeting remotely, Illinois Democrats are facing a lot of questions about the future of their leader due to a sprawling corruption investigation.

Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan
Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, watches the proceedings from the Speaker's platform during a legislative session in 2020. Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register / Associated Press
Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan
Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, watches the proceedings from the Speaker's platform during a legislative session in 2020. Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register / Associated Press

Illinois Democrats Meet Virtually For DNC As Corruption Questions Surround Their Chairman

Even though they’re meeting remotely, Illinois Democrats are facing a lot of questions about the future of their leader due to a sprawling corruption investigation.

The Democratic National Convention that begins Monday is taking on a different look this year as thousands of delegates from across the country are meeting remotely rather than in Milwaukee to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

For Illinois Democrats, the convention arrives as the chairman of the state party, Michael Madigan, is facing calls from inside his own party to step aside. Those calls have been coming for the past month after Commonwealth Edison admitted it handed out jobs and contracts to gain favor with Madigan, who is also the longest-serving House Speaker of any chamber in the country.

Madigan has not been charged with any crimes, and he’s denied wrongdoing. However, the office of U.S. Attorney John Lausch issued a subpoena to the Speaker’s office last month seeking documents and communication with ComEd officials, in addition to AT&T Illinois, Walgreens and Rush University Medical Center.

Meanwhile, four Illinois lawmakers have been charged in the past year, from receiving payments for not doing any work to taking bribes to accepting bribes to tax fraud.

With the corruption investigation swirling around Illinois politics, here are four things to watch out for during the week of the Democratic National Convention.

If everyone is meeting remotely, what will this convention look like?

While the convention will still include prime-time speeches from the roster of Democratic Party all stars such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former President Bill Clinton, the lack of remote nature of the convention without a stadium of energized delegates will make for a convention that looks and feels different from past events.

On the national stage, Illinois Democrats usually have a prominent presence.

But this year, only Illinois U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth will be representing Illinois during the prime-time speeches (not counting former President Barack Obama.) Duckworth, who is expected to speak Thursday evening, got far in the job interview process to be Joe Biden’s vice president, which ultimately went to California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

Otherwise, Illinois’ delegation will be holding their own virtual speeches and meetings in the evening, before the national show begins, to showcase their elected officials and up-and-comers.

Will Democrats address the investigation into Madigan this week?

Madigan denies wrongdoing, and he’s not been charged.

But he has still faced calls to step aside as Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and as chairman of Democratic Party of Illinois.

“We are in the midst of the most important campaign of our lifetime — to remove a president who routinely violates our Constitution and our trust,” State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, wrote in a statement last month. “In contrast, Democrats must offer voters a level of trust and accountability that Chairman Madigan can no longer provide.”

The gradual calls for Madigan to resign eventually led to Madigan admitting he surveyed his fellow Democrats to see if he had the votes to stay in power. He concluded that he did, and he has so far refused to step down.

That has prompted frequent questions of Democrats as to whether they are with him or against him — much to their chagrin.

The remote nature of the convention might mean there are fewer people having to defend their position on whether Madigan should stay or go. But there is still room this week for those Democrats who oppose him to draw a line in the sand.

Political feuds among Illinois Democrats tend to be known to everyone in the room. At the 2008 convention, then-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. had so many political enemies that it prompted a group hug in an effort to publicly reconcile ahead of the nomination of Barack Obama as president.

However, there is no heir apparent for the next Illinois House Speaker or chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. The convention could provide a setting for Madigan’s rivals to further voice their grievances with him.

What difference does this controversy in Illinois make on the convention itself or Biden’s candidacy?

While the corruption investigation into Illinois politics may not matter to the results of a presidential election, the convention presents a high-profile setting for how Illinois presents itself on the national stage.

That, in turn, presents the question of who is the face of the Illinois Democrats at this moment?

In the past two conventions, Madigan presented Illinois’ delegates in the roll call of the states. Perhaps this year, Madigan will take a back seat to let those with stronger ties to Biden be the one to present those delegates, such as Obama or Duckworth.

Where can I catch the Democratic National Convention?

WBEZ will be carrying NPR’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention live each evening beginning at 8:00. The Illinois delegation’s evening events will be open to the media and Democrats and will be livestreamed on www.blueroomstream.com.

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.