A Weakened Madigan Triggers A Legislative Power Vacuum

Illinois’ longtime house speaker aims to hold power, but new indictments touching his inner circle have possible successors circling.

Virus Outbreak Illinois Legislature
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, at an extended session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center, Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. The Southwest Side Democrat wants a 19th term as speaker, but a new round of federal indictments have touched Madigan's inner circle and dimmed his changes for a new term. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool
Virus Outbreak Illinois Legislature
Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, at an extended session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center, Saturday, May 23, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. The Southwest Side Democrat wants a 19th term as speaker, but a new round of federal indictments have touched Madigan's inner circle and dimmed his changes for a new term. Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool

A Weakened Madigan Triggers A Legislative Power Vacuum

Illinois’ longtime house speaker aims to hold power, but new indictments touching his inner circle have possible successors circling.

During Democrat Michael Madigan’s nearly 40-year run as leader of the Illinois House, there has been one unfailing truism involving all things Springfield: Never bet against the speaker.

But with good reason, there has been plenty of betting against Madigan since new federal indictments were handed down last week in a bribery probe that now has taken residence inside Madigan’s innermost circle.

The Southwest Side Democrat wants a 19th term as speaker, which would mean extending a hold on power that predates cell phones, personal computers and the Internet and originated when the Reagans lived in the White House.

But if a vote were held this moment, Madigan would fall short, resulting in an unceremonious political drop-kick to the curb, staining his historic legacy and depriving him of the chance to hand off the gavel on his own terms.

So far, 18 House Democrats have publicly stated they won’t be voting for Madigan as speaker in January, assuming the pandemic allows the Illinois legislature to open a new session of the General Assembly on schedule.

Nine of those no-votes have come in the wake of last week’s indictments of four ex-Commonwealth Edison executives and lobbyists. Those latest indictments included one of Madigan’s oldest friends and trusted advisors, Michael McClain. The case revolves around an alleged conspiracy to buy favor with the powerful speaker, who remains uncharged but repeatedly has been referred to in federal court filings as “Public Official A.”

The latest wave of lawmakers to turn against the speaker means at most Madigan has the support of 55 House Democrats,, putting him south of the necessary 60 votes required for a new term as speaker. To prevail, Madigan would need to flip several caucus members who have already publicly shut the door on another term for him, setting up potentially career-ending consequences for them in some areas of the state’s political map.

“I think it first needs to be established if Michael Madigan can put together the 60 votes. I don’t believe he can,” said state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, who so far is the only declared candidate running for speaker against Madigan.

“And if it’s not going to be him, then he should respectfully step aside so that we can have a real election with real candidates,” she said.

Madigan has been speaker for all but two years since 1983 and first joined the General Assembly in 1971. He is the longest-serving speaker in an American statehouse or the U.S. House in history.

Late Friday, after Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker joined in the calls for Madigan to step aside, Madigan put out a statement that reaffirmed his plans to run for speaker and claimed to have support from “a significant number” of House Democrats.

That pronouncement is not stopping Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy from weighing her own run for speaker, though she hasn’t made a final determination.

“Folks are starting to wonder, what does it look like afterwards?” she said, referring to the heretofore unimaginable leadership landscape in the House post-Madigan. “He’s been speaker most of my adult life, and so there’s a real vacuum in terms of what does change look like?”

Cassidy, who has been in the House for more than nine years, is a leading member of her chamber’s progressive caucus and was a chief sponsor last year of measures guaranteeing abortion rights and authorizing recreational use of cannabis.

The openly lesbian lawmaker from Chicago’s North Side says she’s personally heard from voters who have lost faith in Springfield and cite Madigan as the cause.

“That’s a huge problem that has to be addressed immediately,” Cassidy said. “And so the first thing that we have to do in terms of new leadership is ensure that it’s someone that can restore that faith.”

If Madigan’s bid falters, by some estimates, as many as 10 potential successors for speaker could emerge from the racially and culturally diverse House Democratic caucus.

The possible scramble could usher in a speaker who’s African-American, a woman or someone who’s gay or lesbian — all firsts for the job.

State Rep. Will Davis, an African-American from Homewood and member of Madigan’s leadership team, is still supporting the speaker for another term, though like many others is uncertain how the speaker will be able to bring declared defectors back into his camp.

“I think there is the initial conundrum right there,” Davis said. “He doesn’t have 60 votes.”

If Madigan drops out, Davis said he would like to become speaker himself.

“There is a unique opportunity particularly for an African-American to ascend to the height of being the speaker of the House of Illinois. We’ve seen our first black president. We’ve seen our first woman and person of color vice president,” said Davis, who won his 10th term in office this month.

“So in a state like Illinois, it shouldn’t be too much of a reach that it could be time for those kinds of changes to make its way into the Illinois General Assembly and particularly the Illinois House of Representative,” he said.

Madigan still has support from one of the Democratic Party’s key constituencies, organized labor. The Illinois AFL-CIO, Chicago Federation of Labor and the state’s array of trade unions all have endorsed Madigan for another term as speaker.

Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, said even though the current math isn’t encouraging, Madigan’s fate isn’t sealed, particularly considering he has not been criminally charged.

Time exists to continue working members of the House Democratic caucus to rejoin the speaker’s fold, Drea said.

“From being in this business over 30 years and watching the speaker [and] through several budget fights, when it looks like he’s completely surrounded, he comes out,” he said. “It’s not wise to bet against the speaker.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.