The Democratic speaker of the Illinois House
Story by Rick Pearson
It was already dark when the small plane carrying Gov. Jim Thompson's re-election entourage touched down at Midway on Chicago's Southwest Side, marking an end to a long day on the stump. The Republican and his retinue spilled out of the plane, piled into an RV and headed for dinner in the city's 13th Ward.
Inside the Palermo Italian Restaurant, covering one wall, were the traditional framed photographs of celebrity customers. But there, amid the black-and-white studio glossies of former sports stars and television news readers, front and center in a place of reverence, was a color portrait of Pope John Paul II — beside Michael J. Madigan, the Democratic speaker of the Illinois House.
"Who do you think has more power?" Thompson asked with a grin.
That was a decade and a governor ago. And the political landscape has changed considerably. In 1992, Republicans captured the state Senate. In 1994, they managed to send Madigan into a two-year exile. Though he regained the speaker's podium in January, his Democratic flock has been thinned, and the days are gone when he could kill or advance legislation at will. Still, political parables are magnified in the telling. The legend of infallibility grows. And those who devote themselves to the study of hierarchy at the Statehouse continue to see strategy in wisps of smoke. If anything, Mike Madigan's power seems to increase with the passage of time.
But then, the essence of power may be the illusion of power. Like many leaders, Madigan is blessed with an able mind and an iron discipline. As with most charismatics, he also has calculated the value of appearance — and of mystery — in inspiring wonder and fear. It begins with the eyes. His are cold blue steel. He uses them to slice through an opponent or deflect a question, occasionally heightening the impression by drawing out a paring knife and methodically slicing up an apple. He has the talent — odd in a politician — for appearing to mean more by saying less.
But Madigan has been favored by circumstances, too. Power began to gravitate to the legislative leaders as a matter of course in the late '70s and early '80s, concurrent with Chicago's decline in Springfield and with the shift to single-member districts in the House. Over time, Madigan gained control of the campaign collection plate, enabling him to reward the faithful. And smite his enemies.
Yet now, Madigan, who turns 55 this month, says he's had a political conversion of sorts. The two years he spent cloistered in his office, he says, taught him that voters are tired of par-
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tisan power plays. So he's preaching bipartisanship. He's letting Republicans chair committees, letting their bills get to the floor. And he's leaving Capitol watchers wondering what Mike Madigan is up to.
"I've just come to some pretty strongly held beliefs as to what I ought to do as the speaker and the Democratic leader," Madigan says. "There's going to be less partisanship in what I do. I've said that, and I know there's either lingering, continuing doubt or just plain old doubt. ... I'm not faulting [critics] for their view. But I'll wait awhile. I mean, I have [several] months to work through this session and, at the end of that, we'll see what comes out of it."
Republicans are left with little choice but to take him at his word. At least for now.
"So far his rhetoric has been positive and it sets a stage where, hopefully, we can get some things done," says Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, no stranger to confrontations with the Democratic speaker.
House Republican leader Lee Daniels of Elmhurst, the longtime nemesis Madigan deposed as speaker, is more wary.
"I want to give him the ability to reform, and we'll work with him. But I'm not throwing too many credits [his way] because this is a practical solution by a practical person and he is trying to adapt to the situation," Daniels says.
Indeed, while much has been made of Madigan's transformation, there is one constant in his political career: an ability to adapt in order to survive.
The future speaker held other patronage jobs as well. He served as secretary for 13th Ward Aid. David Healy, as a hearing officer for the state commerce commission and as a consultant on public utilities for the city.
Then, in 1969, the 27-year-old Madigan became the youngest ward boss in the city when he was elected committeeman by precinct captains in the 13th Ward. He used filial loyalty, backed by City Hall control over jobs, to turn the area solidly Democratic.
That was also the year Madigan launched his career in state politics. Daley tapped him to run for delegate to the convention that wrote the state's 1970 Constitution. Madigan worked alongside Richard M. Daley to ensure the city's interests were taken care of — and the mayor's son didn't get into trouble. Meanwhile, Madigan's comments to the delegates, though infrequent, reflected the interests of his blue-collar constituency. He pushed an unsuccessful plan to place a constitutional limit on income taxes.
Two years later, Madigan was elected to the Illinois House. Even in the early days it was evident he was destined for power. A favorite of the elder Daley, he was the likely choice to replace House Democratic leader Gerald Shea of Riverside. Foretelling the brewing power shift, Daley worked out of Madigan's office when he made a trip to Springfield to speak to the General Assembly about school reform.
Madigan became majority leader in 1976, but his power was held in check by Daley's sudden death and by the election in 1979 of Jane Byrne as mayor. In the absence of the tightly held power he was used to at City Hall, Madigan declared independence. Byrne retaliated by pulling $20,000 in city legal business from Madigan's law firm and kicking his 13th Ward precinct captains off the city payroll.
Left with little choice, Madigan swallowed hard and accepted the new leadership in the mayor's office. He never got the law business back. But he did learn then that he should no longer allow himself to be whipsawed by the whims of the person who happens to be running Chicago City Hall. As a
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result, he was able to adapt and survive the revolutionary changes in city politics that stretched from Harold Washington's administration to that of the current mayor, his former legislative colleague Richard M. Daley.
Relations with the younger Daley had changed, however. In 1980, Madigan joined with many of the late mayor's supporters and endorsed the candidacy of 14th Ward Aid. Edward Burke over Daley's son for Cook County state's attorney. It's something the second Mayor Daley has never forgotten.
House from 177 to 118 members and eliminate the cumulative voting provision that ensured minority party representation in every legislative district was the result of a "throw-the-bums-out" revulsion and the belief that change would save money.
In reality, it made rank-and-file legislators more dependent upon leadership and more subject to its dictates on important votes. Lawmakers were faced with one-on-one challenges for re-election — and a leader who could draw their district boundaries, sponsor their candidacies, raise cash to run their campaigns. And dictate their legislative agendas.
Legislative calendars featuring the bills to be considered were appended with more green "up" arrows and red "down" arrows to reflect the leadership's wishes on pending bills. The ability of legislators to form rogue coalitions of interests that cross party or regional lines was curtailed. Madigan, no longer vulnerable to the whims of free-lancing legislators, was better able to isolate those who posed a threat to his leadership.
And he has used that power exhaustively. He singlehandediy killed off Chicago's proposed 1992 World's Fair, for example, with one attack delivered at one of his rarely called news conferences. He said he wasn't convinced the benefits would outweigh the financial — read political — risks.
He's never been afraid to take on the mayor. In 1993, when Daley said a Republican-backed property tax cap in Cook County should be considered as a trade for money to keep city schools open, Madigan fired back. He advanced a Republican bill to kill a $6 million soft drink tax Daley was counting on to close a hole in the city budget.
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state Democratic Party chairman in 1990 and for the state Senate seat from Madigan's district, LaPaille's efforts toward self-promotion wore thin with the speaker. In 1993, the first-term senator announced he would not seek re-election to the Senate, and Madigan continues to keep LaPaille's tenure as state party chairman on a short leash.
But perhaps the most dramatic example of Madigan's power came on a single day: May 17, 1989. After putting Thompson off for two years on the governor's push to increase the state's income tax, Madigan changed his mind and conceived, organized and led what came to be known as "Operation Cobra."
Madigan was able to gather support from his Democratic members and keep them silent — while selectively leaking the story to the press the night before — so that in a matter of six hours he had accomplished the introduction, committee approval and House passage of a temporary 18 percent income tax hike, using only the votes of his House Democrats. The political tour de force stunned Thompson, who was left to read about it in the morning papers.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about an electoral strategy for 1996.1 spent a lot of time trying to recruit candidates all over the state. I spent a lot of time reviewing poll data, which I had never done before. I was never into that. But I had some time on my hands so I became a very avid reader, and I've got files ... up in Chicago on polling data and research and issues. I did a pretty good job of educating myself on that," he says.
"I pulled some files here a few weeks ago, and I found some notes that I put together ... six or seven pages of long yellow pieces of paper in my handwriting, and I look at these things [now] and [I think], 'Boy, I had a lot of time to sit and put all of this together.'"
In fact, Madigan needed six seats last year to reverse the Republican majority in the House. And he made the south suburbs his primary target, a strategy that paid off. The region, which has attracted refugees from the city, is now fertile ground for the Democrats. And Madigan, reflecting
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the national Democratic Party's strategic shift toward the center, managed to recruit candidates who would appeal to the southlands Republican-leaning blue-collar voters.
His Illinois House Democratic Majority political fund spent at least $272,000 directly in six south suburban general election contests. They won them all: Reps. Kevin McCarthy of Orland Park, Maggie Crotty of Oak Forest, Jim Brosnahan of Evergreen Park, Michael Giglio of Lansing, George Scully of Flossmoor and Mary K. O'Brien of Coal City.
There is little doubt that Madigan's success in recapturing the House last November was aided by a strong national Democratic ticket and a coordinated straight-voting operation out of Cook County. Nevertheless, the south suburban election results reflect Madigan's ability to adapt to shifts in his political base.
In the mid-1950s, fully a third of the state senators and 40 percent of the representatives hailed from Chicago. Over time, the population has shifted out of the Democrat-dominated city and into the Republican-controlled suburbs. In recent decades, the Democrats have been forced to find evermore-creative ways to deal with the erosion of their base.
Like Rock, Madigan will have his work cut out for him just keeping the Democrats together. He faces the liberal wing of his party, which supports more social spending. And he faces a conservative downstate contingent that opposes gun control and abortion. It's likely he'll need to rely on the traditional "pork" projects to knit his coalition together.
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ment from downstaters, for instance, over Madigan's choice for majority leader: 18-year veteran Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago. There have been complaints that she is too liberal and that the speaker is favoring the city.
Madigan defends the choice. "For everybody that goes into a leadership position, you have to moderate your views," he says. "This goes back to a result of my two years of reflection. I think you'll see that I am going to lead the Democrats to a centrist approach. Sometimes we're going to be tilting a little left. Sometimes, a little right. That's going to be the result of all of this."
At the same time, Madigan has decentralized his control over the panels that decide the fate of legislation, Instead, the speaker says he plans to "pick his spots," such as education-funding reform, utility deregulation and health care access and aftbrdability.
"There's always going to be some use of the process to direct things. We will have certain priorities we will want to advance and we will be working with the committees so [they] release these items at a certain time. But it should not be an undue use of the process; things should not be unduly manipulated. I think that I did some of that. I don't want to do it again," he says.
But then, motivation is always a question with Madigan.
And, by tapping Republicans to co-chair special panels on electric utility deregulation and the state's problem- plagued prison system, Madigan allows for blame-sharing if something goes wrong.
He may also be seeking political redemption. "I sense that he understands he has a reputation of something which requires the use of adjectives that are not necessarily flattering. And I think he's very much concerned now about what that reputation is and he wants to change that," Daniels says.
"Something that I think about quite a bit is the length of time that I've been here. This is year 27, I believe, and in November of 1998, I'll be here 28 years with the opportunity to complete a full 30 years of service in this building. That's something that I think about quite a lot," he says.
And what happens if, despite his renown for fund raising and field organizing, he finds himself in the minority after the next general election?
"I have to deal with that question the night of November whatever in 1998, just as I did in November 1994."
Though he wears the vestments of Democratic power, Madigan knows his job in the General Assembly isn't for life. And if the electors signal a change in the partisan leadership of the House, Madigan could go back to being minority leader or leave public life. After all, it would merely require another personal conversion.
Rick Pearson is a Statehouse reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
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