Cillizza: Explain, briefly the space Mike Madigan has occupied in Chicago Democratic politics for the last several decades.
Pearson: Madigan, 78, has been part of the fabric of city and state politics for more than a half century. He was born into the world of ward politics on the Southwest Side in the bungalow belt near Midway Airport where his father was a Democratic precinct captain. He also grew into the political patronage system, holding city jobs while becoming a trusted part of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s machine.
In 1969, he was elected the youngest ward boss in the city at the age of 27. That year, Daley also tapped him to become a delegate to the convention that wrote the state’s 1970 Constitution — its current governing document — as well as to keep an eye on another delegate, Daley’s son, the future Mayor Richard M. Daley.
In 1970, Madigan was elected to the Illinois House, where he has served ever since. While city mayors came and went, Madigan continued to accumulate power and jobs through city and county allies, and in 1983 he became House speaker. He has held that post ever since, with the exception of 1995-1997 when Republicans took brief control of the chamber.
Governors both Republican and Democrat have acknowledged Madigan as the real power in Illinois politics — through his ability to singularly control the fate of legislation and dictate the vote of his members being key to any politician’s agenda. He would quash measures sought by Chicago mayors until he was able to extract concessions in return or punish them if they weren’t offered. He made the local share of the state income tax temporary so that Mayor Richard M. Daley had to come back to him for help, allowing him to extract more from Daley.
Madigan also is a property tax assessment attorney, which has proved to be a lucrative business. In addition to representing major city businesses in appealing property taxes, getting a cut of any reduction, business leaders also know of Madigan’s clout and offer property tax business as recognition.
Madigan also has further concentrated his power by holding the position of chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, a post he was elected to in 1998. But unlike other states’ party organizations which strive to be publicly active and take a role in national affairs, Madigan cared little about national politics — even before Illinois turned into a reliably Democratic state on the presidential scene. Instead, he used the party as a closed operation to help further his Democratic majorities in areas that had been traditionally Republican — such as the suburban “collar counties” which surround Chicago and Cook County.
But Madigan has also lasted because of his ability to change. At one time, citing his Roman Catholic faith, Madigan was opposed to abortion and his ideology could be viewed almost as a Blue Dog centrist-to-conservative Democrat. But with his ability to adapt, Madigan eventually oversaw progressive legislation making Illinois a leader in abortion rights, one of the first states to enact same-sex marriage before the US Supreme Court ruled and the 11th state to legalize recreational adult use of marijuana.
Progressive is still not a word used to describe Madigan. Madigan’s primary goal [is] maintaining power and a Democratic legislative majority.
Cillizza: Has Madigan ever faced a real threat to his power? When and why?
Pearson: Previously, the only threat Madigan faced to his power, aside from the two years when Republicans held the Illinois House, came under Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich and recently defeated one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The ideological clash between the two led to Illinois going two years without a state budget with government funded through court orders that far outstripped available cash. Ultimately, Madigan won support from some Republicans for a budget and income tax increase in an attempt to repair the wreckage caused to social service agencies and places like Illinois colleges and universities.
Rauner lasted one term and lost to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2018.
Though Rauner has departed the political scene, his heavy spending and daily criticisms of Madigan inflicted serious damage. Once a figure that everyday Illinoisans never knew, Madigan has become viewed as extremely unpopular — even before the federal investigation in which he has been implicated.
Cillizza: Why is this the moment that Madigan appears to be in real trouble in his effort to remain as speaker? Is all his history finally catching up with him?
But frustration with Madigan has been building with a younger, more progressive caucus straining under an autocratic style which lets members advance only a few of their bills per session.
Rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers and candidates in the November 3 election said that as they tried to explain their positions on issues, voters repeatedly said their chief interest was what were they going to do about Madigan.
Madigan had always been viewed on the outside as smart enough to avoid being caught in the city and state’s history of corruption. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He doesn’t have a cell phone or use email. He said he retains sizable support in his caucus and will seek reelection as speaker and doesn’t intend to step down.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “In January the next Speaker of the Illinois state House will be ________.” Now, explain.
Pearson: I don’t mean to weasel out here but this is very much an open question. In the past, there were heirs apparent to Madigan should he have stepped down. But Madigan has outlasted them. The women’s caucus is sizable and has now become a political force. The Black caucus in the House has always been influential. Progressives have become a larger factor in the chamber and they will want to be represented. Members of Madigan’s current leadership team want consideration.