The legendary Michael Madigan era in Springfield is over.
The man who has been speaker for all but two years since 1983 quietly relinquished power on Wednesday to his successor, state Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, a five-term Democrat from Hillside.
“As I prepare to pass the speaker’s gavel to a new generation of Democratic leadership, I want to thank the people of my district and the members of the House Democratic caucus for the faith and trust they have placed in me over the years,” Madigan said in a statement.
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to help bring people of different experiences and backgrounds together to serve our state,” he said.
Madigan’s career spanned nine Illinois governors, nine Chicago mayors and eight presidents. Nearly half of the Illinois House’s members in December weren’t even born when he first took office in 1971.
To many, he was one of those vintage Chicago politicians, like his mentor, Richard J. Daley, who wielded power for decades, found people jobs and left office on their own terms — in Daley’s case, a stretcher.
But that kind of honorable ending eluded Madigan, who effectively was driven from power by the force of a federal corruption probe — a final act not unlike what former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski and ex-Illinois Gov. George Ryan experienced after decades-long political careers.
The only difference is Madigan hasn’t been charged.
Repeatedly recognized as Illinois’ most powerful politician, Madigan’s bid for a record-setting 19th term as speaker faltered on Sunday. A master of rounding up votes over the years, he couldn’t find enough when it counted, leaving him with no choice but to suspend his reelection bid a day later.
Madigan is the longest-serving speaker of any American statehouse in history. He has held the gavel longer than any U.S. House speaker.
His career predated cell phones, personal laptops and the internet. He was a common thread as Illinois’ finances tanked. But, the Southwest Side Democrat also left an unmistakable imprint on the city and state.
Madigan held the House gavel when Illinois abolished the death penalty, legalized gay marriage, strengthened abortion rights, established an open records law, built a new stadium for the Chicago White Sox, helped renovate another one for the Chicago Bears and impeached a governor. The minimum wage rose 13 times while he was speaker.
He has held legislative supermajorities in the House for four of the past five election cycles and helped Democrats roll through traditional GOP strongholds in the suburbs. While Madigan chaired the Democratic Party of Illinois, the state voted blue in six out of six presidential elections and four out of six governor elections.
But Madigan also presided during a time when the state amassed more than $144 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, carried a worst-in-the-nation bond rating near junk status and operated consistently in the red, allowing a backlog of unpaid bills to reach a staggering $8 billion. The state’s individual income tax rate jumped 65% during his time as speaker.
While other Illinois leaders undoubtedly share in the blame for some of the state’s bad financial decisions over the years, Madigan occupied a perch of power through it all. Every budget went through his legislative chamber, typically with his blessing.
Now, he faces an existential legal threat as probing federal investigators have long attempted to tie him into the expanding ComEd scandal. While Madigan hasn’t been charged, his entanglement in the case led to calls for his resignation as state party chair from Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker, with Duckworth calling for his removal as speaker, as well.
It isn’t the kind of scripted ending Madigan likely envisioned to a storied political career built around keen legislative instincts, meticulous attention to neighborhood needs, a mastery of slick parliamentary maneuvering and political genes that enabled him to outlast his political enemies.
“Madigan is sui generis. Whatever his faults and whatever his liability here, he is the most extraordinarily disciplined person that I’ve ever seen in politics,” said David Axelrod, CNN’s senior political commentator, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama and director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.
From a garbage truck to a patronage army
Madigan’s ties to government began on the back of a city garbage truck roughly six decades ago. It was a patronage job arranged through the help of his father, a ward superintendent who oversaw garbage pick-up and street-cleaning, the speaker said in a 2009 interview for a University of Illinois at Chicago oral history project documenting the life of Mayor Richard J. Daley.
From that modest beginning, Madigan developed an interest in law and enrolled at Loyola University. When he wasn’t going to classes, Madigan worked in the city law department as a clerk, a job he got with help from Mayor Daley.
It wouldn’t be long before Madigan would be the one doling out jobs. In 1969, he was a ward committeeman under Daley and offered government work to cogs within his political organization who were good at bringing out Democratic votes in his ward.
Not long after, aiming for a higher party post, Madigan took on a Daley-backed candidate, a breach in protocol that caused the mayor to avoid talking to Madigan for nine months.
“He was a boss. He should be,” Madigan said of Daley. “Everywhere in life, everywhere in the world, there has to be bosses.”
After tensions with the mayor cooled, Madigan got Daley’s blessing to run for the state legislature in 1970, which represented his first winning Springfield campaign.
Madigan said he keeps a mass card from the 2003 funeral of Daley’s wife on his office desks in Springfield and in Chicago. The card shows the mayor and Eleanor “Sis” Daley at their 35th wedding anniversary.
“When I’m sitting there and trying to make a tough decision, I’ll look over at him and just ask myself, ‘What would he do?’ ” Madigan said.
Yet, that adoration of old political ways may have undermined Madigan in a new millennium.
“Madigan, like so many of these older politicians who have lived through cross generations, [has] operated under an old set of rules,” Axelrod said, “and those rules catch up with you.”
Of late, federal prosecutors have referred to Madigan with the same unflattering moniker, “Public Official A,” that they once used to describe Rod Blagojevich before his arrest and convictions roughly a decade ago. Madigan never shied away from patronage, but that is now at the heart of the government’s investigation.
The “Public Official A” reference appeared 72 times in last July’s 38-page legal settlement between U.S. Attorney John Lausch and ComEd. In a deal that ended a federal criminal investigation into the company, the utility admitted its role in a nine-year Springfield bribery scheme aimed at winning the speaker’s favor by putting his precinct captains and other associates in no-work utility jobs or contracts.
ComEd agreed to pay $200 million in restitution to the government while leaving a single count of bribery hanging over its head the next three years. The charge will disappear if the company cooperates in the ongoing federal investigation and avoids further wrongdoing during that period.
Madigan vigorously has denied wrongdoing, insisting he never was swayed improperly by ComEd’s lobbying or was even aware he was the target. But at the root of his defense is his notion that there is nothing illegal in helping someone get a job — even if the potential employer has pending business before the legislative chamber he controls.
“I believe it is part of my duties as a community and political leader to help good people find work — from potential executives to college interns, and more,” Madigan wrote in late September to a now-disbanded House panel weighing potential misconduct sanctions against him.
But that argument is farcical to well-known anti-patronage lawyer Michael Shakman, who has waged a nearly half-century legal battle in federal court to rid government hiring practices in Chicago and Illinois of political influence. Shakman also represented the former executive director of Metra, who was forced out in 2013 after resisting Madigan’s demands to reward his political allies with transit system jobs, pay raises and contracts.
In the ComEd scandal, Shakman gives Madigan props for creativity.
“The things he’s done with one regulated utility, Commonwealth Edison … was sort of an innovation to work around the legal restrictions that apply to government jobs,” Shakman said of Madigan in an interview with WBEZ.
But the Chicago attorney still questions the legality of Madigan’s conduct.
“There is some kind of tradeoff going on, and the tradeoff doesn’t involve the public interest,” Shakman said. “It’s not in the public interest to have a regulated industry or any industry subject to state law — it doesn’t have to be as regulated as a public utility — giving something to the legislature in return for favorable legislation.”
But Madigan’s long-time allies don’t believe there is a federal case to be made against the speaker, pointing to his off-and-on relationship over the years with ComEd and what they say was a meticulous respect for legal boundaries.
“In my dealings with him, I did not know him as somebody who would say at any point, ‘I can’t do that. Because they’ve been so good to me over here, I can’t hurt them over there,’ ” said former House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Hyde Park Democrat whom Madigan installed as the first woman to hold that job in 1997.
“That’s just not the way he has operated,” she said.
Still, after enduring years of Republican attacks and winning elections despite them, Madigan’s political reputation has become ever more dog-eared as a result of the government’s deferred prosecution agreement with ComEd and the federal indictments that followed. The focus on Madigan played a direct role in a series of disappointing election results in November for Democratic candidates and Pritzker’s graduated income tax amendment.
In September, ComEd’s former top in-house lobbyist pleaded guilty to the bribery scheme and pledged to cooperate with federal investigators.
Then in November, the feds indicted four more former company executives and lobbyists on bribery-related charges, including ComEd’s ex-president and CEO, Anne Pramaggiore, and, perhaps more significantly, a long-time friend and advisor to the speaker, Michael McClain.
For Madigan, who has been speaker for 35 of the past 37 years, this scandal opened unfamiliar fissures in his incoming 73-member supermajority. In October, state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, mounted a politically unheard of challenge to Madigan with her own bid for speaker.
“The deferred prosecution agreement is kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. Years ago, we had the Metra scandal. And then we had the sexual harassment scandal. Now we have our speaker as ‘Public Official A’ in FBI documents,” Kifowit said. “It’s just again and again and again, and it needs to stop, and we need new leadership.”
Opposition to the speaker gradually began building, leaving him nine votes under the 60-vote threshold he needed for another term when House Democrats cast their first ballot for speaker on Sunday.
The next day brought a humble statement from a once-powerful man.
“This is not a withdrawal,” Madigan said. “I have suspended my campaign for speaker. As I have said many times in the past, I have always put the best interest of the House Democratic Caucus and our members first. The House Democratic Caucus can work to find someone, other than me, to get 60 votes for speaker.”
A fight for speaker comes full-circle
Ahead of Wednesday’s transfer of power to Welch, the chaos leading up to the speaker’s election set up the once-in-a-generation prospect of a floor fight in the House. That hadn’t happened since the epic 1975 election for speaker that took nine session days, more than 52 hours and 93 roll calls to resolve. Madigan is the only state lawmaker still in office who took part in that record-setting tug-of-war.
That was a scrum in the Illinois House that involved a group that would go on to gain fame — or infamy — later in their careers. Those casting votes included Madigan, McClain, future Republican Gov. George Ryan, future Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, future Secretary of State Jesse White and future federal Judge Harry Leinenweber, who is now presiding over the criminal cases of McClain, Pramaggiore and the other ex-ComEd executives and lobbyists, who have entered not-guilty pleas.
Madigan’s role in that race for speaker proved pivotal for his career trajectory. Following Mayor Richard J. Daley’s dictates, Madigan initially staked out a position in favor of a downstate lawmaker, Clyde Choate, saying, “I don’t care if we finish today, tomorrow, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I will be here, and I will vote for Clyde Choate.”
Madigan held firm with that seemingly concrete vow through 38 roll calls. But Daley then shifted his support to the ultimate speaker, William Redmond, and Madigan followed suit. On the 39th roll call, Madigan abandoned Choate and started voting for Redmond until the Bensenville Democrat was eventually crowned 54 roll calls later.
The experience handed Madigan his first big political break. Daley helped Madigan land a spot in House leadership. His ascension from legislative rookie to assistant House majority leader was part of a deal the mayor engineered in swinging support to Redmond.
“I never would have become the speaker of the House had I not became the
assistant majority leader in 1975. And he’s the one,” Madigan said of Daley in the 2009 UIC interview. “I didn’t make it on my own.”
Two years later, Madigan would become House majority leader. And by 1983, he was speaker, a position Madigan has held continuously except for a brief window when Republicans controlled the legislature between 1995 and 1997.
The power of this speaker
Madigan wielded power decisively and legendarily. Perhaps no better example exists than how, in under six hours, he oversaw the introduction and 1989 House passage of an 18% increase in the state income tax — all while keeping details of the plan secret from everyone outside his own caucus up until that day. Even the governor.
At the time, Gov. James Thompson reacted famously, saying of the move: “It is bold. It’s audacious. And it might even be diabolical.”
In a 2015 interview with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the late four-term governor recalled saying those very words about Madigan but insisted they were meant in tribute: “All compliments to the speaker.”
“It just shows the power of the speaker — of this speaker,” Thompson said.
Over the years, Madigan worked cooperatively with some governors and brutally imposed his will on others. He spearheaded the impeachment of Democrat Rod Blagojevich after his December 2008 FBI arrest, and he stymied Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner for all four years.
The Rauner era, marked by an ugly, two-year budget impasse, began when Madigan and the governor-to-be had a breakfast meeting one month before Rauner took office. The speaker handed Rauner an index card bearing all of the names of the seven governors he’d served under — with the point being that he had outlasted each one of them and would outlast Rauner, too.
It proved prophetic.
But before the end of Rauner’s term, Madigan’s political organization had its own serious problems, stemming from sexual harassment claims by a former 13th Ward staffer named Alaina Hampton against a long-time Madigan political operative, Kevin Quinn.
It wasn’t until unrelenting and harassing text messages from Quinn to Hampton became public that Madigan fired him. Hampton had informed the speaker about the matter months earlier, but the speaker had done nothing about it.
The crisis deepened when unrelated allegations of bullying and mishandling sexual harassment complaints were lodged against Madigan’s long-time chief of staff, Timothy Mapes, forcing his abrupt resignation in June 2018. Mapes was also executive director of the Madigan-led Democratic Party of Illinois.
Madigan’s ally, Currie, said she will remember the speaker for his embrace of important social advances that became law in Illinois — things like gay marriage and abortion rights that she said put the state ahead of the curve on a national stage.
“This is something that I always thought was really important about Madigan — that he really was very helpful in making these things happen, and these were things I cared about and thought were good things,” she said.
But Shakman said there isn’t a whole lot to Madigan’s legacy outside of his endurance.
“His legacy will certainly be one of effectively maintaining power for a long period of time. The better question, I think, is, ‘How well did he do for the public in Illinois in generating good government?’ and I don’t see it,” he said. “I see many, many problems in Illinois government that haven’t been addressed.
“They’re not all his fault. There’s certainly resistance from the Republican side that is unwarranted,” Shakman continued. “But he’s been a key player throughout a period in which Illinois government has more or less kicked the can down the road rather than addressing … issue after issue after issue.”
In a final written good-bye to his beloved legislative chamber, Madigan talked in different terms about how he sees his own legacy, while acknowledging the time had come for new leadership in the House.
“As I look at the large and diverse Democratic majority we have built — full of young leaders ready to continue moving our state forward, strong women and people of color, and members representing all parts of our state — I am confident Illinois remains in good hands.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.