What drives Michael J. Madigan?

The Illinois House speaker says he’s going to stay in power. He says he has polled his Democratic members and that’s what they want. But why would he still want to do it?

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Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan

Justin Fowler/AP Photos

“He is the longest serving leader of any state or federal legislative body in the history of the United States, having been elected to the position for all but two years since 1983.”

That is from Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s biographical entry on Wikipedia.

The description on the state website for House Democrats is perhaps more fanciful than factual, yet insightful.

“Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan has worked to build consensus, improve the quality of life for residents across all regions of Illinois and work in a cooperative and bipartisan manner to address Illinois’ most pressing issues. He advocates for honest, efficient government and has fought to strengthen the financial security of middle-class families,” the website states.

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“Under his leadership, the Legislature has enacted sweeping ethics law, the first campaign finance limits in state history, and needed reforms to the state budget process and workers compensation system.”

Remember this is the Madigan-approved version of himself.

There is no mention of the $138 billion unfunded pension debt the state has amassed under his leadership, nor his success in planting video gambling machines in nearly every neighborhood bar, strip mall, restaurant and banquet hall in Illinois.

I write this knowing that millions of Illinois residents dislike Madigan and tens of thousands probably hate him.

There is a movement within the Illinois House to get Madigan, who also serves as the state Democratic Party leader, to resign in disgrace.

A federal court record reveals that ComEd illegally used bribes and hired friends of Madigan in order to get favorable legislation passed.

This revelation surprised no one who has watched the interaction between ComEd and our state lawmakers in Springfield for decades. Rate hikes and other sweetheart deals would pass. The legislative sponsors would become lobbyists for ComEd. People close to Madigan and others in power would get jobs with the company.

Stories were written. The public yawned.

This is different, people say. This time news stories claim Madigan is “Public Official A,” at the very center of the federal investigation into public corruption. Subpoenas have been issued. ComEd has confessed its role. The investigation is expanding and ongoing.

Yet Madigan says he’s going to stay in power. He says he has polled his Democratic members and that’s what they want.

But why would he? At the age of 78, still living in a brick bungalow on the Southwest Side of Chicago in his home base of the 13th Ward, why would he still want to do it?

Why has he ever wanted to do it?

I have asked many people that question over the years. Fellow legislators, election lawyers, lobbyists, businessmen, even relatives.

Always there is hesitation.

I even asked Madigan that question more than 20 years ago. It was impertinent.

I told him that I couldn’t think of a single thing he had accomplished of any significance. Nothing I would identify with him. No monument to his efforts. What had he done? What was he proudest of?

He did not get angry. He paused and seemed to ponder his response.

He told me there were two things he was proudest of and mattered to him the most. Democratic control of the Illinois House of Representatives and his daughter’s political career.

His daughter, who went on to become Illinois attorney general, has left the political stage, some say because her father stood in her way when it came time to run for governor. So that is gone.

But Democrats now control the Illinois House, Senate and the governor’s mansion.

There is a census coming up, which means new legislative district lines will be drawn.

There will be boundaries to be gerrymandered. The control of the House will be determined for another decade, as Madigan hand-picks voters for his Democrats. This is the truest application of political power. 

This is one more chance for Madigan to extend his most cherished legacy. He will try his best to do that. Anyone who doubts it doesn’t know him.


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