Michael Madigan, Decades-Long Titan Of Illinois Politics, Resigns After Losing His Role As House Speaker

Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, heads into his office at the state Capitol in Springfield
In this May 30, 2014 file photo, then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, heads into his office at the state Capitol in Springfield. On Thursday, he announced he is resigning from the state legislature at the end of the month. Seth Perlman / Associated Press
Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, heads into his office at the state Capitol in Springfield
In this May 30, 2014 file photo, then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, heads into his office at the state Capitol in Springfield. On Thursday, he announced he is resigning from the state legislature at the end of the month. Seth Perlman / Associated Press

Michael Madigan, Decades-Long Titan Of Illinois Politics, Resigns After Losing His Role As House Speaker

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Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan tendered his resignation from the state legislature Thursday, ending a storied half-century political career cut short by the fallout from a federal bribery investigation.

The Southwest Side Democrat’s decision did not come as a surprise given his decision not to seek a 19th term as speaker last month. His resignation was effective Thursday, and a spokesman said he remains as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. The party said late Thursday it will hold a committee hearing Sunday to choose his replacement. 

Madigan’s hopes of being re-elected speaker faltered under the weight of the federal investigation into Commonwealth Edison. While he hasn’t been charged, Madigan remains a clear focus of that probe into the utility’s lobbying practices in Springfield that sought to curry favor with him.

“It’s no secret that I have been the target of vicious attacks by people who sought to diminish my many achievements lifting up the working people of Illinois,” Madigan said in his statement. “The fact is, my motivation for holding elected office has never wavered. I have been resolute in my dedication to public service and integrity, always acting in the interest of the people of Illinois.”

Last summer, in a $200 million deferred prosecution agreement, ComEd acknowledged spending roughly $1.3 million to contract with Madigan associates, even though they performed little or no work for the utility. The bribery scheme was all in an effort to buy influence with the speaker and help the company win passage of lucrative legislation in Springfield.

Madigan, who was referred to as “Public Official A” in that 38-page court filing 72 times, survived a GOP effort last fall to censure or expel him. That legislative inquiry was chaired by Madigan’s ally, Democratic State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, and it closed without any findings of wrongdoing. Madigan later helped promote Welch to succeed him as speaker.

In a statement Thursday, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker steered clear of the ComEd quagmire, focusing instead on Madigan’s policy contributions over the years – particularly during the stalemated budget fights with ex-GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner – and on Madigan’s love of family. The ex-speaker’s daughter, Lisa, served four terms as Illinois attorney general.

“Michael J. Madigan and his family dedicated countless hours to serving Illinois families, particularly during the Rauner years, when he served as the bulwark against constant cruelty to the most vulnerable,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker also highlighted Madigan’s support of several landmark laws, including the legalization of same-sex marriage, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding voting access, an protecting workers’ and women’s rights.

“The people of Illinois have much to be grateful for thanks to his dedicated public service, and the many sacrifices he and his family made to make a difference in our lives. I know how dearly he loves his wife Shirley, their children and grandchildren, and I hope that in this next chapter, his family can begin to make up for lost time,” Pritzker said.

A “proud” Madigan legacy, or “autocratic rule?”

Madigan first came to the Illinois House in 1971 and became speaker in 1983. From that point, he held the House gavel for 36 out of the next 38 years, establishing himself as the longest-tenured speaker in any American statehouse or the U.S. House of Representatives.

His career spanned nine Illinois governors, nine Chicago mayors and eight presidents.

And during his time in power, Illinois abolished the death penalty, legalized gay marriage and recreational marijuana, impeached a governor and increased the minimum wage 13 times. Politically, Illinois also transformed from a swing state into a reliable Midwestern Democratic bastion – in no small part due to Madigan’s control over legislative and congressional mapmaking for two out of the past three decades.

At the same time, the state’s financial picture worsened substantially as Illinois’ unfunded pension liabilities rose to $144 billion, its bond rating hovered near junk status and its personal income tax rate jumped 65% on his watch.

Thursday’s announcement set off competing narratives about what Madigan’s true legacy really is.

“Rep. Madigan’s autocratic rule over the decades has not made Illinois a more prosperous nor competitive state,” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. “Our state is in shambles – financially, structurally and ethically. New ideas and sincere collaboration between the parties is the only pathway forward.”

Durkin and the state GOP used Madigan as a political pinata and the focal point of attack ads during the past five election cycles. That included this past November, when Republicans staved off potentially big losses tied to former President Trump’s deep unpopularity in Chicago and the suburbs.

The GOP used Madigan as a wedge issue to defeat Pritzker’s graduated income tax amendment and to oust former Democratic state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride, both major victories for a party that otherwise had few moments to cheer for since Rauner’s 2014 election.

“Chairman Madigan’s legacy is that of presiding over the decline of a once great state, ballooning pension liabilities by hundreds of billions of dollars, and the accumulation of historic political power that primarily benefited government insiders and special interests,” said newly installed state Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy.

But his long-time legislative ally, former House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, credited Madigan with helping spearhead passage of the state open-records law, same-sex marriage, limits on campaign contributions and, of late, criminal justice reforms.

“I am grateful for Michael J. Madigan’s leadership. He understood the meaning of public service: helping those in need and ensuring everyone a chance to succeed,” she said. “His legacy is a proud one, and I am confident his successors in Springfield will continue to build on that legacy.”

The Illinois AFL-CIO praised Madigan’s work over his career in protecting workers’ rights, preserving union protections and jobs, and standing up to efforts by Rauner to weaken the state’s unionized workforce.

“He knew how to bring people together behind the most important initiatives to move our state forward while making the right political calculations to ensure his majorities grew and never lost touch with the will of the people,” said Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea and Secretary-Treasurer Pat Devaney in a joint statement.

Big money – and big legal questions – await Madigan in private life

Madigan leaves elected office still in control of four political funds, including his personal committee and the 13th Ward Democratic Organization fund. In those two accounts alone, Madigan closed out the year with a combined $16 million, roughly.

That’s money that could serve as a way for him to retain political influence but also to pay lawyers to fend off possible exposure in the ComEd probe. The Friends of Michael J. Madigan fund, for example, reported more than $1 million on legal expenses in the last quarter alone.

Additionally, Madigan is grandfathered into a state law that would enable him to use a portion of his existing political funds on anything of his choosing – a total exceeding $1.8 million. That amount is based upon the balances of his Friends of Michael J. Madigan and 13th Ward Democratic Organization funds as of June 30, 1998, the last date before the state barred holders of political accounts from spending proceeds on personal items like vacations, home improvements and the like.

So far, a successor hasn’t been named for Madigan’s 22nd House District seat, but he will have power to choose whoever that is. He carries 56% of the weighted vote among five different political power brokers who will get to pick his replacement. 

A notice late Thursday from the Democratic Party of Illinois announced a committee hearing would be held Sunday to pick his replacement. It suggested that anyone who wanted to be considered for Madigan’s seat should send their resume and cover letter to a Democratic party email. 

In his legislative goodbye statement Thursday, Madigan spoke of his successes in the General Assembly.

“Fifty years ago, I decided to dedicate my life to public service,” Madigan said. “Simply put, I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I believed then and still do today that it is our duty as public servants to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and help hardworking people build a good life. These ideals have been the cornerstone of my work on behalf of the people of Illinois and the driving force throughout my time in the Illinois House.”

Madigan ended his statement, sounding as if he had come to terms with concluding a legislative career earlier than he had planned.

“I leave office at peace with my decision and proud of the many contributions I’ve made to the state of Illinois, and I do so knowing I’ve made a difference,” he said.

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