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Dialing for Dems? Madigan insists phone-call ‘feedback is positive:’ ‘I have no plans to resign’

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan in Springfield in May during an extended session of the Illinois House of Representatives.
Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register via AP

Speaker Michael Madigan took to the phones Thursday to conduct what amounted to a straw poll of House Democrats, asking whether they stand with him after a steadily growing trickle of Democratic calls for him to step down over a federal bombshell implicating him in a brazen bribery scheme.

“He just wanted to know if I was with him,” said West Side state Rep. La Shawn Ford. “And the point I made to him is that ‘If you say you’re innocent, then I’m with you.’”

Not everyone agrees with Ford. Two more House Democrats decided Thursday that it’s time for Madigan to go.

But the beleaguered Southwest Side powerhouse said he likes what he’s hearing in his telephone chats.

“The feedback is positive and demonstrates continued support for me and my leadership roles,” Madigan said in a statement late Thursday. “I have no plans to resign.”

The list of Democrats who want him to start making plans grew to six.

“The stakes are too high,” state Rep. Kelly Cassidy said in a statement Thursday. “Speaker Madigan must step down from his leadership roles, both in the House and in our party.”

State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego sent Madigan a letter on Thursday, calling on him to resign.

“There comes a time to take a stand,” she told the Sun-Times. “And this is the time I decided to take a stand.”

Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, left, in 2017; Democratic state Rep. Stephanie A. Kifowit, right, in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Cassidy and Kifowit are the latest Democratic lawmakers — so far, all women from Chicago or the suburbs — to demand Madigan resign as speaker and chair of the Illinois Democratic Party after an explosive federal court filing implicated him last week in an alleged bribery scheme in which ComEd is accused of sending $1.3 million to Madigan’s associates for doing little or no work for the utility.

Madigan has not been charged with any crime and has denied any wrongdoing.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other Democrats have said Madigan should resign — if he is indicted or convicted — but numerous Republicans and a growing list of Democrats say the time is now.

“As a leader on criminal justice reform, I feel strongly about the principles of innocent until proven guilty and the right to due process,” Cassidy said. “I also believe leadership must be held to a higher standard, and it is clear that the constant drip of corruption stories will interfere with our ability to advance a progressive agenda. Whether these investigations ultimately implicate him or continue to pick away at his inner circle, the damage is done.”

Madigan, 78, has been a statehouse speaker for longer than anyone else in U.S. history.

House Speaker Mike Madigan listens to debate during an extended session of the Illinois House of Representatives in May.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

He’s been in the Illinois House since 1971 and held the speaker’s gavel for all but two years since 1983, eclipsing the 33-year record set by South Carolina’s Solomon Blatt, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

In a statement, Madigan said he’s talked to many members of the party, but he’s not going anywhere.

“I understand that the last couple of weeks have been difficult for our caucus and party, and I have had many candid conversations with members of the Democratic caucus on this matter,” Madigan said.

“I have never made a legislative decision with improper motives and any claim otherwise is unfounded. I will continue to lead the effort to defeat Donald Trump, expand the Illinois congressional delegation and the majorities in the Illinois House and Senate.”

One House Democrat, who asked to remain anonymous, said the call he received from the legislative leader known as “The Velvet Hammer” was “very short and sweet.”

“He said ‘these other people feel a certain way, and I want to know where you stand, and thank you — that’s all basically,” the representative said.

Ford said he told the speaker “the moment you feel that you’re not [innocent], I’d like you to let me know, so that there can be a change of my support.”

“As long as he feels that he’s innocent then there’s no reason for me to call for his resignation right now,” Ford said. “Due process is still needed, and I think that this is not an indictment and definitely not a conviction. We’ve seen instances where the prosecutors have gotten it wrong — the person that has to look the people of Illinois in the face is no one other than the Speaker of the House, and his message is that there’s no wrong doing. His belief is that there’s no wrongdoing and because of the fact that he feels there’s no wrongdoing, he feels he shouldn’t resign, if his thoughts change then we should talk.”

State Rep. La Shawn Ford in 2019.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Cassidy did not say in her statement whether Madigan gave her a call.

The North Side Democrat said she’s long “been an outspoken critic of Speaker Madigan, but I have always stopped short of calling for his resignation, deferring to many of my colleagues’ concerns about due process.”

On Thursday, she stopped deferring.

Kifowit said her decision to call for Madigan’s resignation was not an easy one.

“There were some sleepless nights,” she said.

So far, four House Democrats and two Senate Democrats have called for Madigan to step down immediately.

Cassidy and Kifowit join state Representatives Terra Costa Howard of Glen Ellyn and Anne Stava-Murray of Naperville. In the state Senate, Melinda Bush of Grayslake and Heather Steans of the North Side say it’s time for him to go.

State Sen. Heather Steans, left; Then state House Democratic nominee Anne M. Stava-Murray, center; state Sen. Melinda Bush, right.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times Rich Hein and Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times file

Bush was the first, calling on Madigan to step down on Friday, the day the federal court documents became public, urging him to “resign not only his Speakership and his legislative seat, but step down as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, effective immediately.”

“We can’t allow this shameful behavior to continue — especially from someone who has a lead role in both the General Assembly and throughout the state. The continuous ethics and legal violations have been swept under the rug for far too long.”

Then House Democratic nominee Terra Costa Howard in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

That same day, Pritzker said he was “furious.” But stopped short of calling for Madigan to quit, saying “if it turns out that these things are true, he’s going to have to resign.”

At a news conference in LaSalle County Thursday, Pritzker reiterated that he believes the speaker has an “enormous amount to answer for.”

“There are questions that the public needs to hear the answer to — I do, too,” Pritzker said. “And so that’s what I would start with — questions, about what happened here and these allegations that are being made, that are somewhat vague frankly, I mean there’s more information you would need, but in that deferred prosecution agreement … for ComEd, there is obviously reference to the speaker and to people around the speaker.

“I want to know those connections. I want to understand what it was the speaker was doing. He needs to answer these questions, and I think many of us have called for that.”

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout

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