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Illinois Democratic Party not ready to yank the chair from under Madigan

The 36 men and women who technically have the power to end the party reign of the powerful but beleaguered Southwest Side Democrat are not exactly grabbing pitchforks and storming the castle.

House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks to lawmakers while on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield in 2013.
House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, speaks to lawmakers while on the House floor at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield in 2013.
Seth Perlman/AP file

Three of the biggest names in Illinois Democratic politics – the governor and the state’s two U.S. senators – have called for House Speaker Mike Madigan to surrender the reins of party leadership.

But the name that ultimately matters the most is Madigan.

Regardless of what Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth say, Madigan will likely have the votes to remain in charge of the party — should he seek another term.

That’s because the men and women who technically have the power to end the party reign of the powerful but beleaguered Southwest Side Democrat are three dozen members of the Democratic state central committee.

And so far, they’re not exactly grabbing pitchforks and storming the castle.

Five members of the committee — including a congresswoman and a newly elected countywide official — are openly calling for Madigan to step down.

Four others — including the Cook County clerk — see no need for new leadership.

What the other 27 are thinking is a mystery, since they didn’t respond to the Sun-Times’ requests for comment.

One committeeperson who did talk to a reporter wanted a woman who often acts as spokeswoman for Madigan or his 13th Ward operation to listen in on the interview.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush is one of the best-known members of the committee. He would have one of the largest shares of the weighted vote based on the vote in his 1st Congressional District.

Asked to weigh in on Madigan, a Rush spokesman told the Sun-Times they were going to “pass.”

Newly elected Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez chose to play, repeating calls she has made earlier for Madigan to step down.

“While respectfully thanking him for what he’s done ... we have to think about the future of the party,” the longtime Northwest Side state senator said.

State Sen. Iris Martinez.
State Sen. Iris Martinez and then-Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidate earlier this year.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The 36 members of the state central committee — two from each congressional district — are a mix of political types, some familiar faces for decades and others pretty much unknown outside party circles or their own corners of the state.

Madigan is obviously a member of the committee. Pritzker, Durbin and Duckworth are not.

The Sun-Times reached out to most of the committee members. The overwhelming majority didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

Vivian Robinson, from southern Illinois’ 15th Congressional District, did agree to talk.

But she asked the party spokeswoman to sit in on an interview, in which Robinson said she’s “very supportive of Speaker Madigan” for many reasons — namely his experience and “commitment to the party.”

The chair of the party is chosen every four years, and the weight of a committeeperson’s vote is based on results from the last primary election. Madigan’s current term — which is his sixth — ends in 2022.

The “Velvet Hammer,” as Madigan is sometimes called, has amassed an exceptional amount of power through both his party chairmanship and his role as speaker of the Illinois House — a position he’s held for all but two years since 1983.

That power tends to tamp down criticism within the party.

“They’re so afraid to cross him because they’re worried about what he can do to them politically,” said a source who has worked with Madigan when asked why committee members were reluctant to talk.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis wasn’t reluctant to talk.

The veteran West Side Democrat stopped short of calling for a new chairman, but he did say the party needs to “really look at the leadership structure” and “the leadership could seriously stand some decentralization.”

“I think the leadership can open up, and that might mean new leadership, but not just a new leadership in name or title but new leadership in action.”

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis speaks at a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, right, and others in 2019.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis speaks at a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, right, and others in 2019.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times file

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, the other committee member representing Davis’ 7th Congressional District, was not ready to join anyone calling for Madigan’s ouster, asking “who would take his place at this point?”

“As of today, I have no comment on that except that I won’t be lining up behind anyone calling for him to step down or calling for new leadership,” she said.

Peter Janko, who represents the southwest and west suburban 14th Congressional District, voted against Madigan’s reelection as chair in 2018 because he felt the party was “out of touch” with the state and too focused on Chicago and Cook County.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough speaks at an Illinois delegation event during the Democratic National Convention last summer.
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough speaks at an Illinois delegation event during the Democratic National Convention in August.
BlueRoomStream

He still has those concerns but said “my thing is, everyone wants him to resign tomorrow.

“I’m a believer in smooth transitions,” Janko said. “We need to vet someone to replace him... I want him to say that he won’t seek another term, and we can start the dialogue on what the party should look like.”

Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi, who represents the North Side and north suburban 9th Congressional District, responded to the Sun-Times with an email saying, “I look at these serious allegations through the lens of a former federal prosecutor.”

Referring to the criminal probe into ComEd that has implicated Madigan but not resulted in any charges against the speaker, Cabonargi said the investigators “will go where the evidence takes them.”

Michael Cabonargi, then a Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidate, addresses the Sun-Times Editorial Board earlier this year.
Michael Cabonargi, then a Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidate, addresses the Sun-Times Editorial Board earlier this year.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

“If these allegations of wrongdoing are proven true, then he will have betrayed the public trust and must resign,” he said.

Cabonargi didn’t respond to follow-up questions about whether he agrees with other top Democrats that Madigan has become a distraction from the party’s agenda.

Bill Houlihan, a committeeperson for central Illinois’ 18th Congressional District who also serves as state director for Durbin, said “for the Democratic Party of Illinois to move forward, Chairman Madigan should step down so we can start fresh going into the 2022 election cycle.”

Two others on the committee — U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly and former state Sen. Carol Ronen —have also called for Madigan to leave his post at the party.

House Speaker Michael Madigan at Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois-Springfield in 2017.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, laughs during the inauguration ceremony for the 100th Illinois General Assembly at Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois-Springfield in 2017.
Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP file

After Pritzker and Durbin blamed him for defeats in the election, Madigan issued a defiant statement saying he’s “proud” of his record of electing Democrats and advancing “progressive policies.”

“I look forward to continuing our winning record and our fight for working families as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.”

And unless those publicly silent 27 committee members are quietly plotting a coup, it looks like, once again, the Velvet Hammer has the votes.