Back around the turn of the century, I asked Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan what was important to him.
I said, in a rather impertinent manner, that Madigan had been in office about 30 years (he was first elected to the Illinois House in 1971) and I couldn’t think of anything of note he had accomplished.
There was no government building, no major highway, no single social cause with which he was associated.
“What is it that you have accomplished?” I asked. “What would you like to be remembered for? What do you really care about?”
Madigan’s answer stunned me and other members of the Daily Southtown editorial board who were present at the time.
He said there were two things that really mattered to him as House speaker. The first was maintaining the Democratic Party’s majority in the Illinois House of Representatives. The second was his daughter, Lisa Madigan’s, political career.
In the 17 years since that interview, I have spoken with many elected officials, political operatives and civic leaders who have worked with Madigan and asked the following question:
“What do you think motivates Madigan?” who has now become the longest serving leader of any state or federal legislative body in the history of the United States.
They almost always say they don’t know Madigan well and have not ever met anyone that really does, except for perhaps his wife and daughter.
Then I tell them about the question I asked and Madigan’s answer.
And each time the person says that pretty much sums him up Madigan. “I think he told you the truth that day,” several have said.
But if his daughter’s political career really mattered so much to him, why didn’t he get out of her way?
Lisa Madigan announced last week that after serving four terms as Illinois attorney general of this state, she will not seek re-election next year.
It was a stunning announcement to many political observers, but not as surprising as what she said four years ago.
With speculation mounting that she would run for governor, Lisa Madigan said, “I feel strongly that the state would not be well-served by having a governor and speaker of the House from the same family and never planned to run for governor if that would be the case.”
That statement implied that she would have run for governor if her father had retired.
As for Madigan, he responded, “Lisa and I had spoken about that on several occasions, and she knew very well that I did not plan to retire. She knew what my position was.
“She knew,” he repeated for emphasis.
Lisa Madigan seemed to throw her father under the bus, and then the craftiest politician in Illinois deftly stepped aside and let her take the fall.
No one seems to know what happened. But Mike Madigan’s list of two political priorities seems to have dwindled to just one.
Of course, Lisa Madigan is only 50, and could still run for governor or another political office in the future.
But I recall something else Michael Madigan told me during that long ago conversation.
He told me he had warned his daughter not to make the same mistake that he had. He had stayed in the Illinois House for too long, gotten too comfortable, and missed his opportunity to move on to higher office.
I thought there was deep regret in his voice. Timing is everything in politics and Madigan seemed to feel he had missed his moment. Lesser people had done better.
That’s sad if it’s true. But sadder still if when it mattered, he decided his career was more important than his daughter’s.
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