About two years ago, when Pat Quinn was governor and the typical end-of-session madness was going on in Springfield, I happened to see Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan walking out of the Capitol.
Madigan, who hadn’t been in the news for days, briefly answered a question or two. For the next day or so, reporters slapped me on the back with a congratulatory: “Hey! Good job! You managed to get Madigan!”
That’s because the speaker of the House, who has a reputation of being a man of few words, had been particularly elusive that session.
Madigan, the longest-serving speaker in Illinois history, is closely guarded and fiercely skeptical of reporters.
Lately, though, what we’re seeing is a softer side of Madigan — and much more of him.
Last week, Madigan stepped to a microphone for a news briefing — for the third week in a row.
The speaker has been trying to cast Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner as “extreme,” while remaining calm and refraining from taking part in the blame game, even as the has accused him of personally benefiting from government, calling the speaker “corrupt” and a defender of the “political class.”
Speaking in measured tones and a thick Chicago accent, Madigan aimed his piercing squint at reporters and used phrases like, “We must operate in moderation.”
“The governor’s advocacy of non-budget issues works against the core beliefs of both Democrats and Republicans in terms of bringing down wages and the standard of living for middle-class families,” he said.
With the state teetering on the brink of a shutdown and Rauner laying the blame on Democrats in a new TV ad, is Madigan actually worried about his public persona? Or is he fearing the more than $20 million Rauner has in a campaign account?
The Chicago Democrat has grown accustomed to taking a pounding in the media. And he survived a Republican campaign to “Fire Madigan” by expanding the majority he held in the Illinois House. That’s not what’s getting to him right now.
Longtime observers of Illinois politics believe Madigan truly has a fundamental objection to Rauner’s attempts to condition the passage of the budget on lawmakers passing an agenda Madigan repeatedly has said is unrelated to the budget.
Madigan, who’s been speaker for all but two years since 1983, is known, above all else, for working to guard his Democratic majority. Beyond that, Madigan gets his back up when a governor threatens the institution of the Legislature, or the speakership.
“This is a continuation of things that started under Blagojevich — the feeling that he had to have a bigger public presence,” said Kent Redfield, political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Redfield said he thinks Madigan feels compelled “to defend the Legislature as an institution.”
“I think it is a reaction to a very direct frontal assault by Gov. Rauner,” Redfield said. “It’s such a direct challenge to his power and also to the role of the office of the speaker and the role of the Legislature.”
Charles N. Wheeler III, a former statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, remembers a time when he and other reporters routinely dropped in on the speaker to chat. Madigan liked talking about a broad variety of topics, as well as history and organizational politics.
“He was pretty accessible,” Wheeler said. “He was as accessible as anybody else. He’d invite people into his office.
“My sense is he really shut down when Lisa ran for AG for the first time,” Wheeler said of Madigan’s daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “He thought the press treated her pretty shabbily.”
Wheeler describes Madigan as “truly traditional . . . always very protective of the institutions of government.”
Madigan butted heads with former Gov. Jim Thompson over the governor’s use of the amendatory veto, which Madigan viewed as an overreach. Madigan would push for an override, leading some to believe he opposed an issue. Then, he’d introduce the same policy in a separate bill.
“It was Madigan’s way of saying, ‘I’m not trying to block your policy, Governor,’ ” Wheeler said. “Madigan is someone who has a lot of respect for the institution or the office.”
One reason the House no longer holds late-evening sessions is that Madigan was dismayed to see some lawmakers, returning from a dinner break, return to the House floor drunk, Wheeler said.
“I believe that had Rauner been more respectful of the House as an institution, he would have gotten a lot further with Madigan and Cullerton,” Wheeler said. “I think Madigan considers this name-calling as being unprofessional and crude and no class.”
The takeaway? Perhaps it’s similar to the Thompson days.Madigan’s message to the governor: You can get at least some of what you want, but the way you’re going about it has to change.
Follow Natasha Korecki on Twitter: @natashakorecki