“Michael Madigan: Elected without fuss.”
So reads one Illinois newspaper caption from Jan. 13, 1983, the day after Madigan’s peers in the General Assembly elected him speaker of the House for the first time. The choice was easy. Madigan had recently redrawn Illinois’ legislative maps, which meant many lawmakers in part owed their jobs to the 40-year-old from Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Madigan has now held that speaker’s gavel for 35 of the last 37 years. The state’s median age is 37 years old, meaning one man has served as speaker for the vast majority of most Illinoisans’ lives. No legislative leader in American history has held power for longer.
But much has changed for Illinois state government since 1983.
The state’s credit rating has fallen from the highest tier to the lowest in U.S. history, just one notch above “junk” status. It is home to the most severe pension crisis in U.S. history, with pension costs eating up more than 25% of state spending as social services are hollowed out. And residents now shoulder the heaviest tax burden of any state.
But with the exception of a Republican-controlled House from 1995-1997, he has never appeared more vulnerable. The speaker’s inner circle has been mired in controversy for more than a year, from FBI raids and wiretaps, to sexual harassment scandals, to what appears to be a cover-up of rape and ghost-payrolling. This controversy has not yet been enough for a single sitting member of his caucus, or Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, to call for his resignation from the speakership.
How has one man consolidated so much power? Five pillars explain his reign.
1) The rulebook
Parliamentary rules approved by the Illinois House of Representatives every two years grant the speaker more power than any other state legislative leader in the nation. These rules allow Madigan to personally hand out lucrative committee chair positions and block votes on key legislation at will. Leaked emails uncovered by WBEZ show Madigan’s closest confidant, former state lawmaker and high-powered lobbyist Mike McClain, maintained a “magic lobbyist list” that special interests could hire to curry favor with the speaker.
2) Political purse strings
Madigan’s dual role as speaker and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois gives him direct control over both policy and politics. Case in point: In addition to his lobbyist list, McClain maintained a “magic Excel sheet” of key political donors dubbed the “Most Trusted of the Trusted.” No other state legislative leader in the U.S. also serves as the state party head.
Madigan controls the map, drawing Illinois’ political boundaries for three of the past four decades. On the campaign trail, Pritzker promised an independent mapmaking process following the 2020 Census, but has yet to endorse a bipartisan constitutional amendment in the Illinois Senate that would ensure just that.
4) Property tax rainmaker
The speaker makes over $1 million “in a good year” through his law firm, which specializes in Cook County property tax appeals. Owners of some of the region’s most valuable real estate can feel pressured to hire Madigan & Getzendanner, which Madigan founded in 1972, in an attempt to lower their property tax burdens.
5) The power of patronage
Rising to prominence under the wing of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of the most important lessons Madigan learned was that building a patronage army was the key to longevity.
Through accumulation of unprecedented state debt, the speaker has built an army of political foot soldiers who owe generous pensions, early retirements and other perks to the speaker’s protection.
WBEZ uncovered a 2012 email showing McClain fought to protect one state worker, Forrest Ashby, from discipline, telling state officials Ashby had “kept his mouth shut” about “the rape in Champaign” and “Jones’ ghost employees.” Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign later hired Ashby on McClain’s recommendation. A response to a Freedom of Information Act request shows how someone like Ashby might remain loyal in the face of wrongdoing. He retired in 2018 at age 54, after contributing $120,000 toward his retirement over his 29 years in state government. Ashby will receive an estimated $2.7 million in pension payments.
Madigan’s longevity is not an accident. It is the product of consolidating power through policy choices.
And even as federal authorities circle overhead, he isn’t letting up.
In 2019, Madigan voted for a constitutional amendment to scrap a key constraint on Springfield’s taxing power: the state’s flat income tax protection, which voters approved as part of the Illinois Constitution in 1970. Madigan was a delegate to that constitutional convention 50 years ago.
While Pritzker is selling the ballot question to voters as a $3.7 billion “fair tax,” polling shows nearly half of Illinoisans view the amendment as little more than a “blank check” for state lawmakers. Rather than fairness, it is a question of power.
Most Illinoisans have never cast a vote for Madigan. Rather, a small district near Midway Airport sends him to the Statehouse and other state lawmakers make him speaker.
But on Nov. 3, 2020, they will decide whether to vote for or against his power.