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Column

Opinion: Madigan reigns and remains – why?

Austin Berg
Austin Berg

House Speaker Mike Madigan has no signature legislative accomplishment. He has no obvious successor to his throne. He has no monument, unless you count billions of dollars in public debt.

What he does have is longevity.

No modern lawmaker has held a House speakership for longer. Madigan broke that record earlier this year.

The obvious question: why does he remain?

Why not stop when you break the record for wearing the crown longer than anyone? The impact of public policy on the lives of Illinoisans clearly was never a driving force behind his political career. If it were, he would have retreated into hiding long ago.

Of course, Madigan remains because he controls a one-of-a-kind political machine in the Land of Lincoln.

Of course, Madigan remains because a group of about 20,000 Illinoisans are intent on re-electing him to represent a small patch of land near Midway Airport every two years.

Of course, Madigan remains because Democratic House members can’t bear voting for anyone else for speaker.

Of course, Madigan remains because he’s the only state legislative leader in the nation who also serves as a party chairman.

But these are simply mechanisms though which he maintains power. What makes him pursue that end, still? When has one eaten so much that one feels a need to push back from the table?

The week of Sept. 10, two members of Madigan’s inner circle announced they would not be running for re-election.

First came state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. The first woman in Illinois to serve as a majority leader, Currie is also Madigan’s lieutenant in the House Rules Committee, where untold scores of good bills go to die without debate. It is through Currie’s leadership in Rules that Madigan maintains an iron grip on the legislative process.

She is also the only lawmaker who has voted for Madigan for speaker every two years since he first took the leadership role in 1983 (save for the vote in 1995, when Republicans controlled the chamber) – for a total of 17 votes.

After Currie, next was his daughter, Lisa Madigan. She decided against running for a fifth term as attorney general in 2018. But even though she decided to pass on another four years in her post, she has already broken the record for longest-serving attorney general in Illinois history.

“No father could be prouder of his daughter’s personal and professional accomplishments,” the speaker said in a statement, “and I look forward to watching her continue her commitment to helping people in a new capacity.”

But Speaker Madigan wasn’t too keen on watching Lisa help people in a new capacity as governor. In 2013, he refused to step aside to allow for her potential gubernatorial run.

Currie and Lisa Madigan aren’t the only two. Former lawmaker-turned-corporate-lobbyist Mike McClain, one of Madigan’s dear friends, rolled back his longtime career in Springfield this year. Madigan’s aide Joann Sullivan, who had been with him for 44 years, retired at the end of last year.

Clearly, he’s not in this for anyone else’s sake. So what could it be?

A recent column from Chicago journalist Phil Kadner might offer insight. Kadner wrote that in an interview 17 years ago, he asked Madigan what motivated him.

“[Madigan] said there were two things that really mattered to him as House speaker,” Kadner wrote. “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.”

The latter reason can speak for itself. But the former sheds fresh light on why Madigan is sticking around.

The 2018 gubernatorial election will decide more than just the executive branch. It will have a heavy sway on who sits in Madigan’s chamber, as well. That’s because next year’s election will determine who resides in the governor’s mansion when the state’s legislative map is redrawn following the 2020 census.

If a Democrat wins, Madigan will likely have no trouble doing what he’s done through several decades of Illinois history – draw the map heavily in favor of his party. But should Gov. Bruce Rauner stick around, Madigan would need to contend with the veto pen.

Can the speaker outlast Rauner? If so, his map will go a long way toward securing Democratic Party dominance in the General Assembly into the 2030s.

Perhaps then, as the final line is drawn and the new governor’s signature has gone dry, Madigan will excuse himself from the dinner table.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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