Madigan’s rise and fall: From the back of a dump truck to the political driver’s seat — to the side of the road
Among Illinois’ last remaining old-school Machine bosses, Michael Madigan saw an abrupt end to his reign as the caucus he controlled for much of four decades elected its first new leader since the Reagan administration.
When Mike Madigan first took office in Illinois, same-sex marriage was unheard of, gambling was limited to racetracks and computers were confined to laboratories.
Fast-forward through nearly a quarter of Illinois’ 202-year existence, and the Southwest Side powerhouse has finally given up most of his grip on a state that has undergone tectonic shifts both culturally and politically.
Now, there are more places to gamble in Illinois than in Las Vegas, thousands of people marry those they love every year regardless of gender, and most people are glued to supercomputers in the palms of their hands for hours every day. That does not include Madigan himself, who famously still doesn’t carry around a cellphone or check his email, according to colleagues.
And while he’s been a key player in much of that monumental change across the state, a lengthy list of nemeses would argue plenty of it hasn’t been for the better. The longest-serving statehouse speaker in the history of the United States leaves behind a complicated legacy — and a fiscal disaster.
Among the last of Illinois’ remaining old-school Machine bosses, Madigan saw an abrupt end to his unprecedented reign on Wednesday as the caucus he had controlled for much of the last four decades elected its first new leader since the Reagan administration.
Of course, Madigan’s successor, Hillside Democrat Emanuel “Chris” Welch — an unprecedented speaker in his own right as the first Black person to hold the post — was one of the hundreds of allies whose careers Madigan has helped elevate over the years. With preternatural political instinct and a stranglehold on the state Democratic Party’s purse strings, Madigan’s impact will be felt for years to come.
“Madigan was the most focused guy I’ve ever known,” said former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who butted heads with the Democratic speaker during his own two terms in the 1990s.
But with speculation mounting that Madigan could soon resign his 22nd District legislative seat rather than soldier on as plain old Rep. Madigan instead of Speaker Madigan, it’s hardly the exit he would’ve envisioned even a year ago — before becoming embroiled in the biggest scandal to rock Illinois politics in over a decade.
Federal prosecutors have accused leaders of the utility giant ComEd of bribing associates of Madigan in exchange for his organization’s help in passing favorable legislation — namely, raising utility rates.
Madigan, 78, has not been charged with a crime, and has vehemently denied the implications. But several people in his inner circle are facing charges, making him enough of a political liability in last November’s election to create the mutiny among his caucus and his loss of the speakership.
“Eventually it was gonna happen. If you stay long enough, things are gonna go against you, no matter how good a job you’ve done,” Edgar said. “This was his life. I think he played some golf, but he never struck me as having a lot of hobbies. This was it. He was good at it, and he knew it.”
Madigan’s rise to the powerful political driver’s seat actually started on the back of a dump truck in the 1960s, when Madigan was in his 20s.
He got the job hauling concrete and other refuse away from construction sites through his father, the Streets and Sanitation superintendent of the 13th Ward — the Southwest Side enclave that would become the nexus of Madigan’s own political powerhouse.
That’s how Madigan recalled it in a 2009 interview with archivists from the University of Illinois at Chicago as part of an oral history of the city’s iron-fisted late Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Madigan was a protégé of “Boss Daley,” but their political relationship started out with an early rough patch.
Madigan attended St. Ignatius College Prep on the West Side before going on to Notre Dame and later studying law at Loyola University Chicago. That’s when he joined the Lake Shore Club, and found out Daley was also a member of that athletic center on Michigan Avenue.
Madigan’s father, who met the legendary Machine boss when he worked for the county clerk’s office, told his son “that I should make it my business to introduce myself to the mayor, which I did,” Madigan recalled.
“From that point on, he always knew who I was. He had a remarkable memory for faces and names,” Madigan said in the interview. Daley helped land Madigan his first job in the city’s Law Department.
But in 1969, after becoming a ward committeeman under Daley — which at the time allowed him to hand out patronage jobs of his own — Madigan tried to reassign a “political nuisance” within his ward to another part of the city without the mayor’s blessing.
That nuisance had close Daley ties of his own, and the mayor sent him back to his original post, Madigan recalled.
“He just told me, ‘Well, you may not like it, but I’m the boss and this is the way that it’s going to be.’ So me being me, I said, “Okay, you’re right. You’re the boss. But do you know what? I’m going to prove you wrong.’ I spun on my heels and I walked out of his office,” Madigan said. “I got my say in. But I didn’t get to see him [Daley] for about nine months.”
But Daley still kept the stream of patronage jobs running from City Hall to Madigan’s ward.
“He wasn’t going to cut me off, but he wasn’t going to waste his time with me for a while,” Madigan told the archivists.
The budding Democrat took that to heart as Daley eventually backed Madigan’s bid for the state House of Representatives in 1970 — the first of 25 consecutive elections he’d win. Madigan said he modeled his own leadership style after Daley.
“He was a boss. … He had to be a boss. Everywhere in life, everywhere in the world, there has to be bosses,” Madigan said during that 2009 interview.
Madigan became the boss himself in 1983 when he was first elected speaker, the leadership post he held for all but two years until last Wednesday.
And just as Daley launched his own dynasty, Madigan started one of his own, pulling out the stops to help his daughter Lisa Madigan’s first successful run for Illinois attorney general in 2002.
Madigan ended up outlasting his daughter’s rise — and proved to be a political roadblock to her potential gubernatorial run — as she stepped down in 2019, and never ran for governor. His wife Shirley Madigan still works for the state, though, as chair of the Illinois Arts Council.
Speaker Madigan’s tenure was marked by several sea changes, including gambling, as the state introduced the Illinois Lottery in 1975 and 10 riverboat casinos in 1991, followed by the proliferation of video gambling machines elsewhere in the state starting in 2013 and an even bigger expansion passed in 2019.
The state abolished the death penalty under Madigan’s watch in 2011, then legalized same-sex marriage in 2014. More recently, the state has solidified abortion rights and legalized recreational marijuana.
Former Democratic House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie said by spearheading those efforts, “Mike ended up on the right side of history.”
“He stood up for the things that matter, whether it’s working families, collective bargaining rights and reproductive health,” said Currie, whom Madigan appointed to her leadership post in 1997. “It was his ability to lead that kept Illinois at the forefront of that.”
And it was an attentive eye to his members’ needs that helped keep him in the driver’s seat.
“Even though he’s not a warm and fuzzy guy, he was aware and alert to the issues that mattered to his caucus,” Currie said.
At the same time, spending plans blessed by Madigan have seen the state’s unfunded pension liabilities soar to over $200 billion — a can-kicking for which other elected leaders have no choice but to share the blame.
He famously butted heads with governors, even those in his own party, such as disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Madigan stymied some of Blagojevich’s spending plans and then oversaw his impeachment in 2009 amid revelations the Democratic governor had tried to auction off Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
It was worse for the GOP, though. Madigan didn’t speak to Edgar for months after the Republican took office in 1991 ahead of a redistricting campaign, according to Edgar.
“He was gonna teach me a lesson. I was the new kid on the block,” Edgar said. “There were times he drove me nuts and I wanted to strangle him. … But his word was as good as gold, and he was willing to compromise.”
Madigan’s streak as speaker was briefly broken during Edgar’s second term as Republicans took rare control of the House from 1995 to 1997.
“Illinois is a Democratic state, but it’s not as Democratic as it looks on the map. That’s because Madigan was a master of dealing with the map,” Edgar said.
As strained as the relationship between Edgar and Madigan was, it was nothing compared to the one between Madigan and his archnemesis, former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who locked horns with Madigan in a budget stalemate that dragged on for more than two years, devastating the state’s finances and social services.
Madigan ultimately won the early political rounds against Rauner, who wound up losing his re-election bid to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. But the Republican governor landed his own damaging blows, making Madigan a household name with millions of dollars in TV ads that portrayed the speaker as all that is wrong with Illinois politics.
The first cracks in Madigan’s organization started showing at the onset of the #MeToo movement in 2017, as multiple women spoke out against a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and bullying in the state Capitol. That culminated in a settlement with a former campaign staffer who claimed the speaker ignored her complaints of sexual harassment against another Madigan insider.
His lock on the state party loosened more last summer with the federal charge filed against ComEd, but Madigan turned down growing calls to give up his leadership until days before Welch was ultimately elected speaker.
In a statement recognizing Welch’s speakership win, Madigan noted the “large and diverse Democratic majority we have built — full of young leaders ready to continue moving our state forward, strong women and people of color, and members representing all parts of our state — I am confident Illinois remains in good hands.”
And it wasn’t easy for the boss to make that handoff.
“It’s hard to voluntarily give up power, especially when you’re that good at wielding it,” Edgar said.