Madigan’s downfall sparks new career for former aide: Selling weed in Michigan

Mike Noonan was the consummate Illinois political insider. He now runs a “budtique” in southwestern Michigan.

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Former Illinois political operative Mike Noonan shows off his organic marijuana farm in Michigan.

Former Illinois political operative Mike Noonan shows off his organic marijuana farm in Michigan.

Dan Mihalopoulos/WBEZ

NILES, Mich. — For decades, Mike Noonan was the consummate Illinois political insider. He aggressively worked on Democratic campaigns in all sorts of communities and was a big player in the behind-the-scenes jostling over legislation at the state Capitol.

After years as a staffer and top political operative for longtime Democratic boss Michael Madigan, Noonan was a lobbyist with a long roster of clients in Springfield.

But a corruption scandal ended Madigan’s long reign last year. And since then, Noonan has left Illinois entirely.

Last summer, Noonan began what he hopes will be a mellower, second career as an owner of an organic marijuana farm and certified “ganjier” in this small city in southwest Michigan.

Noonan, 54, says he’s done with politics in Illinois and is dedicating himself to fighting for “the craft weed revolution” in his new home on the other side of Lake Michigan.

“Life has really transitioned, and all for the better,” Noonan says, wearing a smock in the retail shop of his Southland Farms in Niles, Mich., about 100 miles from Chicago.

Noonan refers to the shop at Southland Farms as a “budtique” — reflecting the business’ aim of providing an upscale experience and “quality weed” for cannabis consumers.

Next to the cash register at the front of the store, Noonan proudly displays the certificate he earned as a ganjier — a certified connoisseur of fine weed. He passed a course in northern California to become one of what are fewer than 200 ganjiers in the world, trained to guide cannabis users much as a sommelier advises wine drinkers.

Although he was not personally implicated in the Illinois corruption scandal, the native of Chicago’s south suburbs says he felt it was the right time for him to leave the political scene.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Maybe I wasn’t the best at identifying the people who shouldn’t be in politics, because obviously, I still like and care for plenty of folks who are now seen as scoundrels.

“For me, it was time to move on. Because I had accomplished a lot, and I felt good about what I had done.”

Getting ‘Noonan-ed’

Noonan began as a staffer for Madigan in 1994 and managed state legislative campaigns for his allies and others in the Illinois Democratic Party. He came to wider prominence 20 years ago by managing the first campaign for Illinois attorney general of the boss’ daughter, Lisa Madigan.

Noonan relished popping up outside her Republican rival’s news conferences to offer instant rebuttals for reporters. He was so good at it that rivals griped about “getting Noonan-ed.”

Mike Noonan managed Lisa Madigan’s campaign for Attorney General in 2002.

Mike Noonan managed Lisa Madigan’s campaign for Attorney General in 2002.

Sun-Times file photo

Even before going into politics, Noonan says he had a deep appreciation for marijuana — using it since 1986, when it was still illegal.

He says Madigan became aware of his weed habit in 1996, when a competitor in politics reported him. He thought it would cost him his job but recalled his supervisor in the Madigan organization telling him he would not be fired.

“I had been a hard-working guy, and I think, more importantly, I had been successful for them,” Noonan says. “And so the reprimand that I got from my boss at the time was, ‘You’ve been reported. It doesn’t seem to be affecting your work at all. See you tomorrow.’”

Noonan also believes Madigan gave him a pass because he understood that, “Nobody is just one thing. And people can be good, and they can be bad.” A lawyer for Madigan declined to comment on Noonan’s recollection of that incident.

ComEd scandal rocks Springfield

After helping Lisa Madigan win statewide office, Noonan became a lobbyist in Springfield for mostly corporate clients.

Among the companies he represented in the Illinois Capitol was Commonwealth Edison. The giant power utility admitted in 2020 it had hired Madigan allies as consultants and paid them for little or no work to curry favor with the speaker, who helped pass legislation that padded ComEd’s profits dramatically.

Madigan resigned last year and has been indicted in the scandal, but he has denied any wrongdoing and his case is pending in federal court.

According to federal court records and sources, Noonan’s then-business partner Victor Reyes won a contract for his law firm with ComEd, allegedly as part of the electric company’s efforts to please Madigan. Reyes has not been charged with a crime, and Noonan says he had nothing to do with Reyes’ law firm.

The situation hurt business for the Roosevelt Group, the lobbying and public-relations business Noonan owned with Reyes in downtown Chicago. Noonan says he sold his stake in the Roosevelt Group, and records show he canceled his registration as a lobbyist in Illinois in July 2021.

“I was associated with a lot of people who aren’t in politics any longer, many of them because the federal government decided they shouldn’t be in politics any longer,” he said.

At that point, he said he decided, “I need another act.”

Southland Farms is located in southwestern Michigan.

Southland Farms is located in southwestern Michigan.

Dan Mihalopoulos/WBEZ

A new career in the weed business

Noonan says he is now one of the little guys trying to provide a classier, higher-quality alternative to the products offered by big marijuana interests.

Everything in his store in Michigan is grown on site, from seed. Behind the budtique, Southland Farms has five climate-controlled rooms full of dozens of highly pungent, leafy marijuana plants. All the products are processed on the premises and sold exclusively there.

To become a ganjier, he underwent six months of online training, three days of in-person classes and a day-long exam in Humboldt County, Calif., in July. That same month, Southland Farms opened its door.

In Noonan’s office, there’s just a single reminder of his 25 years in politics: a “24 hours to victory” sign from an election-eve rally for Todd Stroger’s campaign for Cook County Board president in 2006. Stroger won narrowly, after then-U.S. senator named Barack Obama appeared at the rally.

Noonan says the sign reminds him to “just keep fighting ‘till the end” — and to not hesitate to ask for help from friends in times of need.

Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.

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