It’s been two months now since it became apparent Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan would face the strongest challenge ever posed to his leadership, yet no obvious front-runner to replace him has emerged.
If Madigan indeed is to be replaced, that should start to change as House members return to Springfield this weekend to wrap up the business of the outgoing Legislature and get organized for the new one.
Democrats met privately Saturday for their first (mask-covered) face-to-face discussion about who should lead them.
It’s hard to imagine them making headway quickly.
Until Madigan is ready to step aside — there’s not even a hint of that at this stage — most of the leading potential alternatives are staying on the sidelines.
Despite being weakened by a federal investigation of Commonwealth Edison’s efforts to influence him, Madigan is fighting hard to retain power.
The investigation has made clear it’s time for him to go. But he still has a majority of House Democrats backing him. Old habits die hard.
The new Legislature won’t be sworn in and begin its business until Wednesday, when the first item will be to pick a new leader.
Nineteen of the 73 House Democrats elected to the new General Assembly have pledged to vote against Madigan, which would deny him the 60 votes needed to keep the position he has held for all but two years since 1983.
As long as the 19 stick together, and so far they have given every indication they will, Madigan can’t be reelected.
Between now and then, Democrats are expected to meet daily in closed-door caucuses to try to work out their differences and settle on a candidate. It won’t be easy. The fight could last weeks.
Many House members are capable and qualified of serving as speaker, but it’s a measure of Madigan’s tightfisted leadership that there is no heir apparent waiting to take over.
One of Madigan’s opponents’ main tasks has been to convince their colleagues he isn’t the only person who can do the job.
It is a big job, made bigger by Madigan as he consolidated power.
He is the House Democrats’ political general, strategist and fundraiser. He’s the gatekeeper who decides which bills are considered and the one who provides the votes or doesn’t, depending on his calculation of what will help him retain his majority. Perhaps least appreciated, he is the maker of the legislative maps, the drawer of boundaries designed to keep Democrats — and himself — in power.
Three of Madigan’s 19 declared opponents — Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, Kathleen Willis of Addison and Ann Williams of Chicago — have declared their intention to run against him.
But I am unaware of any House Democrat — other than those still backing Madigan — who has publicly committed to vote for any other candidate.
Madigan’s opponents have held their strategy close to the vest, much like Madigan himself, while waiting for the field to fill.
With women comprising a majority of House Democrats in the new term, there is considerable sentiment for a woman to emerge as the new speaker.
Rep. Kelly Cassidy, one of the first to come out against Madigan, is considering a run. Some have promoted the candidacy of Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth, a Black woman from Peoria, but she has yet to show interest.
House Majority Leader Greg Harris, known for his ability to negotiate complex issues, would have a following if he declared. But his close working relationship with Madigan could become an issue with those looking to break with the past.
Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, a skilled politician who’s popular with many colleagues, would quickly become a front-runner if the Black Caucus were to unite behind him. That also would hold true for most anyone in the Black Caucus, though Welch is regarded as its top choice.
But for now they’re pledged to Madigan, and Welch is viewed skeptically by many of those who have led the Madigan revolt.
Some think Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea, who challenged Madigan’s leadership during Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration, could emerge as a compromise candidate. But with Democratic legislators fast becoming an endangered species downstate, he doesn’t start from a place of power.
Any white male candidate would have to be considered a long shot right now — with the possible exception of Madigan himself.