clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Illinois House Democrats can’t seem to imagine life without Mike Madigan as speaker

Those who follow these things closely believe it’s going to take more than what’s in play so far to deny Madigan the support of 60 House Democrats needed to re-elect him speaker.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Lynn Sweet / Sun-Times file

There’s a fantasy popular in certain Illinois Democratic circles that goes something like this:

Democratic legislative candidates wipe out suburban Republicans in the November election, allowing House Speaker Michael Madigan to expand on his party’s overwhelming majority.

Flush with his latest success, the nation’s longest-serving House speaker cites the election results as a repudiation of his critics, declares he’s done all he can for Illinois and calls it quits after 50 years as a state representative — to spend more time with his grandchildren.

Then, those engaged in this fantasy snap out of it and remember this is Mike Madigan, who gives up nothing without a fight, never voluntarily cedes power and ain’t going nowhere yet.

Still, a person can dream.

You might imagine that, with the federal government crawling up Madigan’s back side in its investigation of his dealings with Commonwealth Edison that his hold on the speakership would be more tenuous than ever.

Maybe it is. State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, seems to think so, saying she will be the first candidate to challenge him for speaker.

But those who follow this closely believe it’s going to take more than what’s in play so far to deny Madigan the support of 60 House Democrats — the number needed to re-elect him speaker.

Two people who might have the biggest say in changing that aren’t even part of Madigan’s majority: U.S. Attorney John Lausch and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

If Lausch returns a big indictment against former ComEd officials and Madigan’s associates, expanding on the case laid out in ComEd’s deferred-prosecution agreement — and gets it done before Democrats meet in January to pick the new speaker — that could alter the dynamic.

Even then, it probably would require a push from Pritzker, the party’s de facto leader, who has been loath to take on the speaker directly.

Some think that could change if Pritzker’s graduated income tax constitutional amendment falls short, with Madigan partly to blame for its defeat as Republicans point to him as a symbol of government distrust.

But if that happens, Pritzker might need Madigan’s help to pass an income-tax increase,or whatever other measures he’d pursue after being denied the anticipated revenue from the state’s wealthiest taxpayers.

It might take nothing short of an indictment of the speaker to convince House Democrats it’s time for a change in leadership.

Why do Madigan’s members stick with him? It’s a number of things from what I can tell: loyalty, respect, fear.

Not just fear of what Madigan might do in retaliation but of the unknown, of what might happen without him. Fear of how they would raise campaign money or manage their campaigns because, at the moment, he handles those things.

And not to be underestimated: fear of the new map, with political redistricting scheduled in the coming term. Legislators always are interested most in self-preservation, and the map can make or break them. If Madigan draws the map, they know he’ll protect them if they protect him.

Under Madigan, House Democrats are accustomed to winning. They win elections. They win legislative battles. They’re not keen on giving up any advantage he gives them for the devil they don’t know.

Even progressive Democrats who would seem to have little in common with Madigan’s politics tend to fall in line for all of the reasons above — and because he helps them achieve their legislative goals.

African American legislators, in particular, are expected to be supportive of Madigan. Beyond tending to feel strongly about the importance of “innocent until proven guilty,” they’re looking to him to protect them in the coming remap, no simple matter with population losses in Chicago’s Black communities.

They also are counting on his pledge to support their agenda addressing systemic racism, seizing on the momentum growing out of the social unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd.

At a Legislative Black Caucus news conference Thursday in Chicago, I didn’t find anyone willing to commit to backing Madigan. They said they will be awaiting his customary call, usually in the week before the November election, asking them to commit to voting for him.

It’s also an opportunity, of course, for legislators to win commitments from him.

Some day, Illinois will have a new speaker of the House.

Not everyone can imagine it.