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Oswego ex-Marine says she’s ‘first in’ against Madigan for House speaker

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit said she is running against Mike Madigan because he has “compromised the integrity” of the speaker’s office and “undermined the public trust.”

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) announced plans Thursday to challenge Michael Madigan for Speaker of the House.
Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Even as long-serving House Speaker Michael Madigan’s approval rating was falling below Donald Trump’s, Democratic legislators always had a fallback explanation for re-electing him: he was the only Democrat seeking the job.

They won’t have that excuse next time, assuming state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, a little known four-term Democrat from Oswego, makes good on her announcement Thursday to challenge Madigan for the speakership.

Kifowit, who was among a handful of House Democrats calling upon Madigan to resign after he was implicated this summer in a federal investigation of Commonwealth Edison, surprised many of her colleagues by taking her opposition to the next level.

Kifowit said she is running against Madigan because he has “compromised the integrity” of the speaker’s office and “undermined the public trust.”

It’s almost inconceivable Kifowit could knock off the powerful Madigan, who has held the post all but two years since 1983. She’s not popular enough with her colleagues to pull it off.

But her candidacy creates another chink in Madigan’s armor that might eventually allow opponents to deny him the 60 votes needed for another term.

If that happens, there could be a wide open scramble to replace him in which other, more influential House members would be favored.

Even Kifowit suggested she expects other candidates to join the fray before the vote takes place in January after the new Legislature is sworn in.

“I believe firmly there should be a choice, and now there’s a choice,” she said during a news conference.

Democrats currently control 74 House seats, which would require 15 members to defect from Madigan.

Sources tell me nowhere near that many have indicated a willingness to do so, even privately.

That could change if there are further developments drawing Madigan deeper into the ComEd scandal, in which the company has admitted to spending $1.3 million to hire Madigan associates in an effort to influence him.

The speaker has not been charged and has said he’s done nothing wrong.

Democrats are actually expecting to pick up more House seats in the November voting, which would make the task of replacing Madigan even more difficult because new members are often beholden to him.

Kifowit, who is running unopposed on the November ballot, would not discuss her conversations with other House members seeking support for her candidacy, except to say she has some support.

“Many of my colleagues are fearful of retaliation, coercion, intimidation, from not only Speaker Madigan but also his allies,” she said.

Madigan, the longest serving leader of any state legislative body in the U.S., brushed aside Kifowit’s challenge with a statement saying he is focused on the November election.

“I have spent my entire career supporting Democrats, regardless of differences in perspective within our party. We are at a critical juncture in our country, and all of us should be focused on coming together to defeat Donald Trump and repair the hate and division he has sown in our communities,” the statement read.

Kifowit, 48, said she believes she would be the first Democrat to formally oppose Madigan during his nearly four decades at the helm. I can’t remember anyone, and neither could the other old-timers with whom I checked.

“I guess I’m the first. They always say Marines are the first ones in and the last ones to leave, so I guess I’m the first one in,” said Kifowit, making reference to her four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Social distancing wasn’t much of a challenge at Kifowit’s news conference at the Hotel Allegro, which was known as the Bismarck Hotel and a longtime stronghold of Chicago Democrats when Madigan took power.

I was the only reporter in attendance, along with three television photographers. That meant I asked all the questions, which was awkward.

Kifowit criticized Madigan’s refusal to appear voluntarily before a House special investigative committee called by Republicans to consider disciplinary action against him in light of the ComEd scandal.

But she stopped short of taking issue with Democrats on the committee who have declined to subpoena him to testify.

Republicans seized on Kifowit’s announcement to put pressure on Democratic candidates in contested races to make them take a position on who they would support for speaker.

That put some House Democrats in a difficult position before the election, which won’t win her any friends.

A tip of the hat to Kifowit for being first to challenge Madigan. Just hope she’s not the last.