After making history in ornate splendor, Madigan could see decades-long reign hit cold, hard concrete

In these final stages of his career, Madigan certainly looks to be more rogue than hero, although at points along the way he has surely been both. Under him, Illinois passed landmark social legislation. It also spent itself into a deep, unforgiving hole.

SHARE After making history in ornate splendor, Madigan could see decades-long reign hit cold, hard concrete
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, at the Bank of Springfield Center on Monday.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, stands in the back of the room during debate pm a bill during the lame-duck session for the Illinois House of Representatives held at the Bank of Springfield Center on Monday.

Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

SPRINGFIELD — If Wednesday is to mark the end of Michael Madigan’s record-setting reign as House speaker, one might have hoped the gods of history would have found a more poetic setting.

Just a block from the Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln proffered that a “House divided against itself cannot stand,” and where Barack Obama stood outside in the cold to officially launch his own run for the presidency, the Illinois House will convene to pick its leader for the next two years.

The pandemic has necessitated it will do so on a bare concrete floor amid the nearly empty seats of the Bank of Springfield Center, a perfectly serviceable convention hall like those to be found in most mid-size American cities.

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But it’s a far cry from either the rustic old Capitol or the ornate “new” Capitol (circa 1868) just down the street where Madigan has served as a state representative for 50 years.

That building has been restored to its original glory — at considerable public expense — under the direction of Madigan himself, just one of many marks the Chicago legislator has left here during a reign that at thismoment is best known for a corruption scandal.

In this city defined by political history, Madigan has certainly carved out his own place in it, if only by longevity.

As we keep repeating, the Southwest Side Democrat is the longest-serving state House speaker in the history of the United States, having presided over Illinois’ lower chamber for all but two years since 1983.

To have seen Madigan at the rostrum with the gavel in hand as the hour approached midnight on the last day of a legislative session is to have witnessed power at its purest and most precise execution.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, looks out over the floor of the Illinois House in 2017.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, looks out over the floor of the Illinois House in 2017.

Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

Of course, his power was more often wielded off stage in private settings with an icy glare and as few words as possible.

In these final stages of his career, Madigan certainly looks to be more rogue than hero, although at points along the way he has surely been both. Under him, Illinois passed landmark social legislation. It also spent itself into a deep, unforgiving hole.

In many respects, he’s been a pillar of stability for the major interest groups who vie for consideration at the Capitol, as well as Chicago’s best friend in Springfield for the city’s power elite.

But no matter what happens here Wednesday, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois will still have the opportunity to write a final chapter to the story as it completes its investigation into Madigan’s dealings with Commonwealth Edison and other matters.

And no matter whether he remains speaker, Madigan is entitled to remain a state representative, having just been duly elected to another two-year term. Whether he would be interested in doing so in a greatly diminished capacity is a matter of much conjecture, but as is so often the case, there has been no guidance on the matter from Madigan’s own mouth.

At the hour of this writing, we still don’t know whether Madigan intends to even have his name placed in nomination Wednesday. He announced he was suspending his campaign for the post Monday after an initial vote by his members left him nine votes short of the necessary 60, but he said he wasn’t withdrawing.

In his absence, state Rep. Chris Welch of Hillside emerged as the candidate with the most momentum, pulling together 50 votes Tuesday evening in the first Democratic caucus balloting since Madigan stepped aside.

Welch had followed up his Monday night endorsement from the 22-member Black Caucus with another Tuesday from the nine-member Latinx Caucus. Both groups had previously backed Madigan.

He also benefitted when state Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago dropped out of the race. The North Side legislator was part of a group of 19 progressive Democrats who mounted the challenge that put Madigan in jeopardy.

State Rep. Jay Hoffman of downstate Swansea, a savvy veteran legislator with friends in labor, pulled down 15 votes, while eight representatives voted “present.”

That could set the stage for Hoffman to cut a decisive deal with Welch to end the festivities, or it could cause a deadlock.

Some are still expecting a stalemate that will result in Madigan swooping in.

I remain highlydoubtful, but until someone else posts 60, it remains an accepted maxim of Springfield that you never bet against the speaker.

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