Citing concerns that their division over reelecting Michael Madigan as Illinois House Speaker is giving strength to their political opponents, six Illinois House Democrats are pleading with their 19 colleagues who have committed to not supporting Madigan to “come together as a family” and “unite for a common purpose.”
In a letter marked “Confidential” and obtained by WBEZ on Thursday, the group laid out a lengthy case that the Democratic caucus should unite in order to advance their own substantial agenda. That includes addressing systemic racism, a massive state budget hole caused by a stalled economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic and even ethics reforms.
While the letter does not overtly call on any of the 19 lawmakers who oppose Madigan to flip back in favor of Madigan, the authors do appear to be challenging the 19 — urging them to talk with the Democrats who remain aligned with Madigan to come up with a solution.
Though these members have benefited from Madigan’s past political support, their letter does not provide an outright endorsement of the speaker, leaving its political intentions ambiguous.
“The time is short,” they write. “The stakes are high.”
They cite a recently-published Chicago Tribune editorial in which the newspaper’s editorial board advocates for Republicans — who hold a super minority of members in the House — to get behind a Democratic lawmaker who is not Madigan to be the next speaker.
“To be clear, the Editorial Board with a history of animosity toward core issues that our Caucus holds dear has openly called for the House Republican Caucus to intervene in our leadership election. The inherent danger in even considering that premise cannot be understated,” the letter states.
The letter was signed by six Madigan-aligned state representatives: Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, Frances Hurley, D-Chicago, John D’Amico, D-Chicago, Nick Smith, D-Chicago, Justin Slaughter, D-Chicago, and Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island.
It comes at a significant moment for Madigan, whose support has been waning for months after utility giant ComEd admitted it bribed associates of the speaker to curry legislative favor. Madigan has not been charged and he denies wrongdoing.
“The reason the Editorial Board felt it had license to even make the suggestion is because we aren’t united — neither publicly, nor privately. This kind of pressure will only increase in the coming weeks, and if left to fester, cause damage to our mission to serve our constituents best,” the letter reads. “There is so much on the line. The time is short. The stakes are high.”
But this winter’s challenge is perhaps the greatest to Madigan’s decades of power. With 19 Democrats in opposition, Madigan would be short of the 60 votes he needs to be reelected speaker. Opponents of Madigan’s have argued the speaker’s entanglement in the ComEd scandal puts him in a position of being unable to effectively lead the House Democrats and muddies their goals.
The Democrats who penned the letter appeared to question who else would have power to coalesce the votes needed to not only successfully oppose Madigan, but to carry on the party’s priorities.
While it avoids any direct questions of the 19 recipients, the letter does appear to ask that if they don’t support Madigan, then who do they support for speaker; and if not who, then what do the opponents of Madigan hope to achieve.
One other Democrat has come forward as a candidate for speaker: State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego. But her candidacy has so far not been met with strong outward support.
The letter writers go on to say that they are not attempting to question the decision of the Democrats who have publicly opposed Madigan, but urging them to “come together as a family,” and talk about a “path forward for us all.”
It also goes on to conclude with a biting line for Madigan’s critics, “That we are more concerned about the collective fate of our state than our individual elections.”
For weeks, Madigan has been suffering public losses as members of the House Democratic caucus have gradually announced on their own that they would not support Madigan for reelection as House speaker due to the ComEd accusations.
That changed this week, however, when the Black Caucus announced it was publicly supporting Madigan for speaker because their caucus would be in “a more advantageous position under the leadership of Speaker Madigan.”
One member of the Black Caucus publicly rebuked that statement. State Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, who had previously declared he would not vote for Madigan, issued a four-sentence statement Thursday afternoon.
“My position hasn’t changed,” he wrote.
West was one of the 19 Democrats to whom the letter was addressed.
Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.