New book contextualizes former House Speaker Mike Madigan’s power over Illinois | Government and politics

SPRINGFIELD — A fun fact that I like to recount in the company of politically astute friends and acquaintances is that I was born in the days of Illinois House Speaker Lee Daniels, R-Elmhurst.

It’s a bit of a special designation given that Daniels’ presidency only lasted from 1995 to 1997, a brief interlude in the 36-year reign of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, the longest-serving speaker. of the House of American History.

Think about it. Madigan at the time of his ousting in 2021 had been a speaker for at least 90% of the 40-and-under life.

In a way, he became a reality for those of us who grew up in Illinois, a constant amid a rotation of governors, senate presidents, Chicago mayors and other players. keys to state politics and government.

Elected every two years by voters in his small legislative district on Chicago’s southwest side and continually re-elected president by House Democrats, Madigan has become the most powerful politician in the state.

It can be summed up in a question that has hovered over nearly every Capitol number for nearly 40 years: “What does the speaker think? »

In this March 16, 2002, file photo, Illinois Democratic Attorney General nominee Lisa Madigan, right, takes part in the St. Patrick’s Day parade with her father, then the Speaker of the Illinois House , Michael Madigan, left, in Chicago.


Veteran Chicago Tribune reporter Ray Long seeks to answer that question and more in his new book, “The House that Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer,” published by University of Illinois Press and released earlier this week.

The 240-page biography is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand key developments in Illinois state government and politics over the past 40 years.

Stylistically, it’s more like Mike Royko’s “Boss” than Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor’s “American Pharaoh,” the two must-read biographies that chronicle the life and times of former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. , the political godfather of Madigan.

By that I mean it’s a tight but in-depth read that doesn’t seek to touch on all the somewhat relevant details of Madigan’s life, just the highlights and low points that get to the essence of Madigan and the influence he has accumulated and managed over the years.

“I thought what I needed to do was not write a biography where I talk about all his different activities — growing up or what grains he ate or something like that,” Long told me in an interview the week last. “I wanted to write about the big moments and big issues that impacted the state of Illinois and helped illustrate its power.”

Michael Madigan - File photo

In this August 28, 2017, file photo, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, looks down at the floor of the Illinois House at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield .


There aren’t necessarily previously unknown details about Madigan in the book, but it does serve to contextualize how Madigan used the levers of government and politics to amass power that will likely never be wielded by a leader again. legislation anywhere.

Long details how Madigan’s one-sided rule of the House, his unrivaled political functioning, control of campaign money, and army of supporters all combined to bolster Madigan’s real and perceived power.

This power was exercised quietly and often in the shadows, hence Madigan’s nickname “The Velvet Hammer”.

“He was kind of seen as a guy who can wear you down slowly and gently like water running over a rock for a thousand years,” Long said.

“He took a more subtle approach to crushing someone,” he added.

There are several highlights, such as the story of June 30, 1988, when Madigan “stopped time”, allowing the House to meet a midnight deadline to approve funding for the construction of a new stadium for the Whites. Chicago Sox, who were threatening to bolt for Florida.

Madigan worked with Democrats and Gov. Jim Thompson worked with Republicans in the House to muster the 60 votes needed to save the Sox.

The roll call was open for several minutes until the 60th vote was obtained. The actual time? 00:03 The time declared in the hemicycle? 11:59 p.m.

When a reporter asked Thompson about this discrepancy, he said “the speaker said he moved on at 11:59 p.m.” Immediately after the vote, Madigan bet that no judge would challenge the result – and none of them did.

Long also goes through several Madigan power plays, some of which were waged against the seven governors he served with.

There’s a chapter on “Operation Cobra,” Madigan’s stealth plan to temporarily raise state income taxes in 1989. It passed the House in less than a day with only Democratic votes.

Long said the legislative attack “totally surprised Thompson”, writing that it was “the biggest raw power play I have ever seen President Madigan pull off”.

By contrast, when lawmakers voted in 2017 to approve a Madigan-backed plan to end the state’s two-year budget stalemate, Long said Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner “knew this was coming and he couldn’t do anything about it because Madigan outmaneuvered him politically.”

Illinois Legislative Assembly

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, listens as Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner delivers his State of the State address on January 25, 2017, in the Chamber of the Illinois House.


And of course, there’s a section on the impeachment and removal of Governor Rod Blagojevich following his indictment on federal corruption charges.

In addition to Madigan’s tops, Long also highlights her bottoms.

Politically, this includes the failure to adequately fund state pension systems. Although Madigan tried in 2013, his plan was declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Today, the state’s unfunded pension liability is north of $130 billion.

And then there’s the speaker’s ultimate downfall, with cracks beginning to show in 2018 during the #MeToo movement. Some members of his entourage have been accused of sexual harassment and the speaker has been asked about his handling of the issue.

Then came the federal investigation into the hiring practices of utility giant Commonwealth Edison. The federal government accused the public service of corruption in June 2020, alleging that it awarded jobs and contracts to Madigan associates in exchange for favorable treatment.

Months later, Madigan consigliere Mike McClain and three others were charged. That was enough for enough House Democrats to drop their support for Madigan and thus deny him another term as president.

Long’s book ends here a bit abruptly, almost as if part of the story is yet to be written. He confirms this in the last paragraph of the epigraph, calling it “the first draft of Madigan’s ups and downs”.

That would prove to be a cautious prediction, as Madigan earlier this month was indicted on federal bribery and racketeering charges in connection with the ComEd scandal.

Could there be a second edition coming with these new details?

“It’s writing itself right now, so I’ll be watching,” Long said.

Like Royko did with Daley, Long writes with the clean copy and authority of a veteran journalist who had a front-row seat to Madigan’s record.

That’s because he did, first covering Madigan as a trainee for the Alton Telegraph in 1981 – Madigan’s first year as legislative leader and just two years before he began his tenure. record as a speaker – and still reporting on him to this day at the Tribune.

Long used his decades of reporting on Madigan as well as that of several Statehouse colleagues. Casting in analyzes from longtime Illinois political observers, it paints a picture of a colorful period in Illinois politics and government and the man at the center of it all.

Just as “Boss” was a story about Chicago as much as Daley, “The House that Madigan Built” is a story about Illinois as much as Madigan.

Long told me the book “could work as a sort of historical look at what Illinois went through when Madigan was a major player there.” He added that he felt it was “important to do this while he was still a permanent figure in Illinois.”

When he started writing the book in 2018, he figured Madigan would still be the speaker when it finally came out. But, as readers will find, Long did what good journalists do best.

“I just followed the story,” Long said.

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