Mike Madigan has left the building — but the former House speaker’s shadow clouds the campaign trail

Attacks on Madigan’s influence over state government have been part of the Republican campaign playbook going at least as far back as Bruce Rauner’s election in 2014. There’s no reason to think that’s going to let up now that Madigan has been charged with racketeering and bribery.

SHARE Mike Madigan has left the building — but the former House speaker’s shadow clouds the campaign trail
Former House Speaker Michael Madigan walks away from reporters after a committee hearing in 2021 to decide who would take over the House seat that Madigan had held since 1971.

Former House Speaker Michael Madigan walks away from reporters after a committee hearing in 2021 to decide who would take over the House seat that Madigan had held since 1971.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Aside from stubbornly clinging to his post as 13th Ward Democratic committeeperson, there are no outward signs indicted former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is playing any active role in the state or local political scene in 2022.

That won’t save Democrats on the November ballot from facing another election season with Madigan as a major campaign issue to defend against.

Attacks on Madigan’s influence over state government have been part of the Republican campaign playbook in Illinois going at least as far back as Bruce Rauner’s election in 2014.

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While the results have been mixed, the combined effect reached critical mass in the 2020 election when anti-Madigan sentiment was credited with defeating both a Democratic state Supreme Court justice seeking retention and a proposed constitutional amendment to allow for a graduated income tax backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

There’s no reason to think that’s going to let up now that Madigan, who resigned his Illinois House seat more than a year ago, has been charged with racketeering and bribery by federal prosecutors.

In fact, the expectation is that Madigan will be a larger focus than ever this fall, despite plenty of other issues vying for center stage such as gas prices, crime, abortion, state finances and the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a potent and powerful force,” one Republican consultant said of why Madigan will remain a top campaign issue.

Madigan looms largest in the governor’s race, where one of the leading GOP contenders, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, has signaled his intentions to tie Pritzker to the former speaker while casting himself as the guy who “beat” Madigan. That’sa reference to his 2017 mayoral election over state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, who the speaker supported.

The other perceived Republican frontrunner, state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, has taken to referring to Irvin as a “mini-Mike Madigan” for the suburban mayor’s own alleged ethical shortcomings.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Richard Irvin, left, and Darren Bailey, right, in May.

Republican gubernatorial candidates Richard Irvin, left, and Darren Bailey, right, in May.

Rich Hein; Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

But no matter who gets the GOP nomination, Madigan is expected to be a problem for Democratic candidates from the governor on down the ballot.

That’s because the use of Madigan as a symbol for Illinois political corruption not only motivates the Republican base but also resonates with many independent voters. In the current primary cycle, even some Democrats are attacking their opponents for being too close to Madigan.

Some of the Madigan attacks may be borderline silly, such as Irvin’s disingenuous campaign ads asserting thatif he’s elected governor, he won’t cut Madigan’s prison sentence. I say disingenuous because Madigan is facing federal criminal charges, and even if he is convicted of those charges, no Illinois governor would have the power to reduce his sentence.

But Pritzker does have some vulnerabilities on the Madigan front. He won the Democratic nomination by forging an alliance with Madigan in 2018, pumped millions of dollars into supporting the speaker’s House campaign apparatus and was slower than others in his party to push for Madigan’s ouster after the Commonwealth Edison case emerged.

Republicans can also be expected to cite Pritzker for picking Madigan-backed individuals for top state jobs and boards and for including questionable Madigan pork barrel spending projects in his Rebuild Illinois program.

“J.B. Pritzker owes voters an explanation as to why he helped fund the Madigan Criminal Enterprise, hired Madigan cronies and said Illinoisans should be ‘grateful’ for the Speaker’s corrupt tenure,” saidIrvin campaign spokesperson Eleni Demertzis.

Eliza Glezer, Pritzker’s campaign spokeswoman, responded:“The GOP doesn’t have any real policy positions, so per usual, they’ll try to talk about anything but their own records. They’d love nothing more than to make this race about someone who isn’t even on the ballot to distract from their own history of corruption involving pay to play scandals, obstructing justice, and cutting deals for their inner circle.”

Democrats have already previewed their “best defense is a good offense” strategy through campaign commercials that portray Irvin as the corrupt one, a message that Bailey has parroted with a Madigan spin.

“Pritzker’s corruption and extreme policies and Irvin’s corrupt record as a mini Mike Madigan speak for themselves. They both lack the integrity to lead Illinois, and it’s time for a new direction,” said Bailey spokesman Joe DeBose.

The trial of Madigan confidant Michael McClain and former Commonwealth Edison CEO Anne Pramaggiore is scheduled to start Sept. 12, which would put the matter in the headlines in the heart of the election season.

Mike McClain, left; Mike Madigan, right.

Mike McClain, left; Mike Madigan, right.

Sun-Times File Photos

Madigan is not a defendant in that particular case, but the charges revolve entirely around alleged illegal efforts by company executives and lobbyists to influence him. Madigan’s own trial on charges dealing with ComEd and other matters has not been scheduled.

Democrats exploited former Republican governor George Ryan’s corruption scandal in their political messaging long after his name had disappeared from the ballot, and I can’t blame Republicans for doing likewise with Madigan.

Don’t be surprised if Madigan still pops up as an issue in the 2024 elections.

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