Mike Madigan spent half a century amassing and tightly gripping political power — and in a little over a month he had little choice but to give it all away.
In his latest hand-off, the former Southwest Side powerhouse announced Monday that he is stepping down as head of the Democratic Party of Illinois — just one day after telling reporters he had “no idea” when he would do so.
The decision sets off a scramble to replace him, with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin backing U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly for the post, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth throwing their support behind 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris.
The resignation comes less than a week after Madigan stepped down from his Illinois House seat and six weeks to the day since the beleaguered legislator gave up his bid to remain speaker. A spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Vice Chair Karen Yarbrough will be appointed as interim chair of the state party until a new chair is named, a statement announcing the resignation said.
As he did in his other resignations, Madigan chose not to focus on the federal investigation driving it all, instead treating this departure as an occasion for a victory lap.
“Over the last two decades, we have elected a diverse array of Democrats across Illinois and helped send a hometown Chicago leader to the White House, turning Illinois into a Democratic stronghold in the Midwest,” Madigan said in a statement.
“Together, we faced conservative extremism and stood up for working men and women. I’m confident the Democratic Party of Illinois will continue to cement our place as a beacon of progressive values.”
Madigan also thanked his family, saying his work “would not have been possible without the support of my family, Shirley, Lisa, Tiffany, Nicole and Andrew. I thank each of them for their unwavering love and support that has allowed me to do this work for so long.”
Madigan, 78, was first elected chair of the party in 1998, and under his leadership Democrats have held steady as the “‘blue wall’ in the Midwest, held supermajorities in the legislature, passed landmark legislation that has made Illinois a leader in progressive policy, and significantly increased the numbers of women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community serving in state elected office,” a statement announcing the move said.
Yarbrough said in a statement “Democrats across Illinois owe Chairman Madigan a huge debt of gratitude for the support, resources and time he’s dedicated to candidates and races at every level.”
Reached shortly after the announcement, Yarbrough said she had mixed feelings on the matter and expressed no intentions of remaining chair of the party.
“Things are going to be different, there’s no question about it,” Yarbrough said. “This is a great loss ... especially for the Democratic Party. Mike made it look easy — now, we’ll see.”
Yarbrough said she ran against a Madigan-backed candidate when she was seeking a statehouse seat and, though she beat Madigan’s candidate, she said the two enjoyed a “a warm friendly relationship” and she would consider him a mentor.
“Every single time I ever sat down with him, I always learned something new, and if I talked to him about any part of the state, or somebody who had been in office before or some particular issue, he always knew something about it,” Yarbrough said. “And there’s a lot to be said about that. When you don’t know, you don’t know what you don’t know and you can start heading down the wrong path, especially when you’re talking about legislation. So, this is a great loss.”
Madigan’s resignation is effective immediately — his current four-year term as state central committeeman ends following the March primary in 2022.
Shortly after Madigan’s announcement, Duckworth and Pritzker announced their support for Harris, who serves on the state’s central committee, to succeed Madigan, saying in a joint statement “the next leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois must continue the progress we’ve made by supporting Democratic candidates who will help working families at the local, state and federal levels equally.
“We believe Alderman Michelle Harris is best qualified to lead our party forward in the years ahead and are hopeful the State Central Committee will select her to serve as the next Party Chair,” the joint statement read in part.
But Kelly also quickly announced she would make a bid for the party reins.
“With democracy under siege, it’s more important than ever that we have leaders of our party that can appeal to the broad sector of our electorate that represent all 102 counties of our state,” she said. “The Congressional district I represent is urban, suburban and rural which is a microcosm of the State and gives me a unique perspective and understanding to lead our party forward.”
Durbin threw his support behind the congresswoman, saying “Democrats in Illinois are in our strongest position ever.
“We cannot rest on our laurels, and we must take this opportunity to look honestly at where we are now, as well as look to the future and lead by example,” Durbin’s statement continued. “That is why I am supporting my friend, Congresswoman Robin Kelly, to be the next Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.”
Illinois Election Code dictates the 36 members of the Democratic State Central Committee must meet within 30 days to select a new chair to serve for the remainder of the term.
Yarbrough said she plans to convene a meeting, though she wasn’t immediately sure when that would happen because she needs to talk to members of the central committee.
Madigan also remains as committeeperson of the 13th Ward in the Cook County Democratic Party.
He served in the state House since 1971 and was speaker for much of the past four decades.
His political free fall began last summer after federal prosecutors accused ComEd officials of bribing associates of Madigan in exchange for his organization’s help in passing favorable legislation.
Madigan has not been charged with any crime and denies wrongdoing, but his confidant Michael McClain and three other members of his inner circle were indicted in November for an alleged bribery scheme designed to curry favor with the then powerful legislative leader.
The latest shoe to drop in Madigan’s farewell tour comes just one day after he chose his successor in the state House, Edward Guerra Kodatt, a worker in Madigan’s 13th Ward organization.
At the meeting Sunday to fill the House vacancy, Madigan was tightlipped about his plans regarding the state party chairmanship, saying he’s “going to be an active Democrat” in whatever role that’s available to him.
“We haven’t gotten to that bridge yet,” Madigan said when asked if he would step down from leading the party.
Asked when he might cross that bridge, he responded, “I have no idea.”