On March 2, former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was indicted on 22 federal counts, alleging multiple instances of using his powerful position to enrich himself and his allies.
It’s the dramatic capstone of a 50-plus-year career described as both “legendary” and “corrupt,” depending on who you talk to.
Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Ray Long began covering the State House early in Madigan’s historic reign as Speaker of the House, and has unique insight into how it operated.
What does the speaker think?
At the Illinois Capitol, the question hovered over all major issues. The issue came over the phone, was whispered in the hallway, came up at a committee hearing and was presented at a press conference. It’s a simple question, of course, that should be asked in state houses across America. In Illinois, however, the answer carried much more weight. For in Illinois politics, the speaker’s movements in the late 20th century and early 21st provided a roadmap for how Illinois got to where we are today. Have you spoken to the president about your bill? Can you get your bill through the House? What will he do next? What does he want?
These issues dominated internal debate in Springfield, whether on guns, pensions, education, gay rights or taxes – before a vote was considered, let alone taken. They have been questioned time and time again – by Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers and top recruits, lobbyists, labor and business leaders, journalists and editors, generations of governors and, yes, Chicago mayors.
Everyone wanted to know the positions of the secretive man who has done more than anyone else to shape Illinois politics, government and law over the past half-century: Speaker of the House Michael Joseph Madigan, Speaker of the Illinois Democratic Party, Chicago 13th Precinct Committee Member, Lifetime Resident of the Southwest Side of the City. Wielding the hammer for almost two years from 1983 to early 2021, making him the oldest speaker in the country, Madigan built the house where he reigned. But in a larger sense, he built the house that Illinois people live in. What the speaker thought became more than an academic question. The answer gave the best clues to politicians wondering which ideas would succeed or stifle.
Lori Lightfoot recognized that dynamic even before she was sworn in as mayor of Chicago in 2019. After meeting with rookie Democratic Governor JB Pritzker, she walked into the president’s Capitol suite and addressed the House. When she walked out of Madigan’s office, Lightfoot offered no apologies to her far-left critics long tired of the speaker’s Springfield reign. She made a carefully worded comment to reporters eager to hear what happened between the new Democratic mayor – the black, openly gay, progressive former federal prosecutor – and the almighty speaker – a white, straight Democrat formed in Irish, ward- style politics half a century earlier by Mayor Richard J. Daley, the party leader who perfected Chicago’s machine. “The speaker occupies a prominent place in the government of the state,” Lightfoot said. “We’re not going to line up on every issue, but he’s an important person for the city of Chicago.”
Understated, of course, Lightfoot’s neutral remarks nodded to clear political and practical realities: Loved, revered, hated or feared, Madigan played an outsized role. All of this played into the Madigan Mystique – which always exists somewhere between real power and perceived power. Whether you consider Madigan a genius, a fool, or both – and there were plenty of people on either side – he consistently managed to hypnotize his admirers and frustrate his enemies. Madigan’s political opponents found themselves beaten so often by his persistent yet subtle strength that he early became known as “The Velvet Hammer”. He underscored the nickname when he first raised the wooden gavel as Speaker in 1983 and called the House to order.
Instead of the hammer blows his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, often used to calm the chamber, Madigan held the mallet end of the hammer and tapped the handle lightly. To the astonishment of the legislators, the Chamber fell silent. Madigan smiled. “It’s a new era,” he said.
Madigan has long wanted to be a powerful leader, in the form of his mentor, the first Mayor Daley. “The person who ends up as a leader in the Legislative Assembly is pretty much able to figure out exactly how they want to do their job. They can be strong or they can be weak. Active or passive. In my case, I decided years ago that I wanted to be a strong legislative leader, an active legislative leader,” Madigan said. “I hope that by acting from a position of strength, I will do good things, not bad things. I would hope.”
Over the years it has been considered conservative, moderate and liberal, depending on the era and the subject. An early social conservative who matched his Catholic upbringing, the speaker opened up as members of his caucus pushed to lead a chamber that voted for same-sex marriage, an extension of abortion rights and a ban of the death penalty. Once representing a heavily white enclave on the southwest side, it still scored big victories when the population shifted to Hispanic. He fought to cut state pension benefits for public sector employees, but workers later rallied behind him when he pushed back against aggressive efforts to roll back union rights. Maybe that’s why he avoided labels. “I’ve always classified myself as a Democrat,” Madigan told reporters on the radio after the 2016 Democratic Convention. “I don’t use an adjective to describe my political party. I am a democrat.
Extremely deliberative, Madigan usually knew how to course-correct when he misread the political winds. Madigan lost the presidency of Illinois in the 1994 nationwide Republican tide that saw U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich take control of the U.S. House. But Madigan built a political team that — despite running in Gerrymander districts to favor Republicans — took over the Illinois House two years later. He once took a political photo of a rising Democratic star named Barack Obama deriding him as “The Messiah.” But then Madigan gave Obama’s presidential campaign a boost by stepping up in the Illinois primary to help Obama’s run for the Democratic nomination. Madigan repeatedly argued with Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich – then backed him for re-election in 2006. But the president launched impeachment proceedings two years later when the FBI took Blagojevich away in handcuffs. Madigan moved quickly in 2018 to stifle calls for his resignation from state and political office over his handling of accusations of sexual harassment and abusive behavior among his top aides. But concern among a diverse caucus that included more women than men persisted.
Strange as it may seem for a large state like Illinois, where governors have enormous power and a massive pulpit of intimidation, Madigan has remained in charge for decades. A frustrated Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, who has repeatedly tried and failed to outsmart Madigan, blurted out during his unsuccessful 2018 re-election campaign: “I am not responsible. I try to be responsible. No one in Springfield wondered what Rauner meant. In November 2018, Democrat JB Pritzker defeated Rauner in the gubernatorial race. And Madigan? The speaker won the most House Democrats he has ever controlled – a 74-44 supermajority. With their large Democratic majorities, Madigan and Senate Speaker John Cullerton sent Pritzker a massive expansion of casino games, including the much sought-after Chicago Palace, sports betting and recreational marijuana and a $45 billion windfall. . Madigan called the first few months of 2019 an “extraordinarily productive session of the General Assembly. Simply historic.
In Chicago, however, a different kind of story was being written. Just over two weeks before lawmakers adjourned, the FBI quietly raided the homes of three longtime Madigan associates, including former Commonwealth Edison lobbyist Michael McClain, one of the firm’s closest confidants. speaker. Before the end of the year, the Tribune reported that federal authorities tapped McClain’s phone and began asking questions about Madigan and his allies. In the summer of 2020, prosecutors shone the spotlight directly on Madigan, linking him to ComEd’s “year-long corruption scheme” of giving jobs, contracts and payments to a list of Madigan’s political allies. in the hope of obtaining favorable treatment for the public service legislative program. ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine and agreed to cooperate in a deferred prosecution agreement. Madigan was not charged and categorically denied wrongdoing, but prosecutors implicated the speaker and tagged him with an ignominious nickname: “Civil Official A”.
The fallout left him politically vulnerable, which played a role in losing an Illinois Supreme Court nominee and pushing Pritzker for higher income taxes on top earners. . Prosecutors then delivered more uncomfortable post-election news: McClain was charged along with a former top ComEd executive and two other lobbyists. Despite the serious questions swirling around him, Madigan still remained positioned to take a long-term view. Getting Pritzker in the governor’s chair guaranteed that a Democrat would be in place to sign a new legislative map, the most critical element in determining which party would control the General Assembly for the next decade. But instead of seeing Madigan as an invincible powerhouse, a bloc of 19 mostly female Democrats viewed him as a political liability and refused to support him.
And then the unthinkable happened: he lost the presidency. Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, an ally of Madigan, rounded up the votes and became Illinois’ first black speaker. Almost 40 years to the day since he first became legislative leader, Michael J. Madigan ended his record reign. And the ComEd investigation is still dragging on.
From the House Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer by Ray Long. Excerpt originally published in the Chicago Tribune. Copyright 2022 by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Used with permission from University of Illinois Press