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The Democratic speaker of the Illinois House
built a reputation for political infallibility
by rewarding the faithful and smiting his enemies.
Now he's preaching bipartisanship

Story by Rick Pearson
Photographs by Terry Farmer

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-




12 / April 1997 Illinois Issues

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.

Madigan was born into the then- fledgling Democratic politics of the 13th Ward, a blue-collar bungalow belt south and east of Midway Airport. An Irish Catholic, he attended St. Adrian Elementary School and St. Ignatius College Prep, then the University of Notre Dame and Loyola University law school.

His father, Michael Sr., was a Democratic precinct captain and a ward superintendent. He also held a patronage job under Cook County Clerk Mike Flynn, the 13th Ward Democratic committeeman. One of Flynn's employees was Richard J. Daley, the future mayor.

That relationship between the elder Madigan and the elder Daley was long-lasting. When young Michael Madigan, who was then a law student, approached the mayor about a job, he got one in the city's law department.


Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, no stranger to
confrontation with Madigan, says, "So far his
rhetoric has been positive, and it sets a stage
where, hopefully, we can get some things done.

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

Illinois Issues April 1997/ 13

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.

Nonetheless, unlike such political contemporaries as Burke, former state Attorney General Neil Hartigan, former Cook County Assessor Thomas Hynes and former 10th Ward Aid. Ed Vrdolyak who all aspired to become something greater in political life Madigan didn't make the larger political mistakes. For one thing, he didn't alienate himself from the essential Democratic constituency in the African-American community during the "Council Wars" that marred city governance when Washington took over the hall.

And, unlike most of the others, Madigan really didn't aspire to go anywhere but the legislature.

Even while he adjusted to the changes in the city's political landscape, Madigan never stopped working to amass his own power base in Springfield. His authorship of the 1981 legislative redistricting map gave Democrats a House majority in 1983 and thrust him into the speakership.

In politics timing is everything. And with the voter-ratified Cutback Amendment to the state Constitution, which took effect the year he became speaker, Madigan was able to concentrate and consolidate his power. The vote to reduce the size of the Illinois

In the House, rank-and-file legislators
have become more dependent upon leadership
and more subject to its dictates on votes.

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.

Rank-and-file legislators have felt his wrath, too. When then-Rep. Al Ronan, a Chicago Democrat, urged changes in House rules several years ago to give individual lawmakers more independence and more control over their bills, Madigan split the House Transportation Committee, neutering the panel Ronan had chaired.

Even his own former chief of staff Gary LaPaille has found himself on the wrong end of Madigan's gavel. After earning the speaker's support for


14 / April 1997 Illinois Issues

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.

"It is bold. It's audacious. And it might even be diabolical," Thompson said.

Madigan said he became convinced of the need to raise taxes after making a trip to Effingham, where he saw firsthand the conditions in downstate schools. But, like all of his conversions, there was a political rationale for the change of heart. Operation Cobra was accomplished shortly after Daley's election as mayor, a time when the city was in need of new money. In addition to helping schools, Madigan's plan rewrote the formula for municipal revenue sharing from state income tax receipts, giving cities, including Chicago, a bigger slice.


Madigan, who holds a 60-58 edge
over the GOP in the House, will
have his work cut out for him just
keeping his Democrats together.

Madigan enjoyed that kind of give-and-take with the deal-making Thompson, a Chicagoan. But when Edgar, a downstater, moved into the governor's mansion, the relationship between the legislative and executive branches changed. In the first legislative session under the new governor, Madigan battled Edgar over property tax caps and state spending.

The enmity was clear.

"I remember when I was first elected governor in 1990. It took almost four months before he'd meet with me. I met with Daley. I met with [former state Senate President Phil] Rock. But he went out of his way to make comments that were negative," Edgar says. "This time, it's been the opposite. Every time I've asked to see him, he's come to see me."

Times have changed.

Indeed, Madigan was left with nothing to do but meditate on those changes after 1994. The GOP victory in the House, coupled with a Republican state Senate and governor, made Democrats largely irrelevant. So Madigan spent much of his time in his third-floor office overlooking the rotunda the one Speaker Daniels made him move into.

"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

Illinois Issues April 1997 / 15

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.

When he controlled legislative redistricting in 1981, Madigan stretched the boundaries of some city districts into the suburbs in order to maximize city control. But then, when the Republicans controlled the 1991 legislative remap, they used their power to maximize suburban interests. So, reflecting that new reality, the Democrats have begun to challenge Republicans on their own turf, even co-opting the GOP'S message.


Madigan must work to reconcile the liberal
wing of his party, which supports more social
spending, and a conservative downstate contingent
that opposes gun control and abortion.

But that creates another set of problems for Madigan. As a result of population and demographic shifts, only about a quarter of the legislature now represents city-only constituencies. Though about half of Madigan's caucus lives in the city, many of his members have sizable suburban constituencies who don't necessarily endorse Chicago's legislative agenda.

Beyond that, the reduced size of Madigan's caucus hampers his ability to operate in the new 90th General Assembly. He holds a 60-58 edge over the GOP, just enough to get a bill out of his chamber. In fact, by winning back the majority last November, Madigan was guaranteed only two votes: one to elect him speaker and a second to adopt rules governing the operations of the House. He'll have to rely on coalition-building for the rest. And that's never been easy for Democrats.

When Democrat Phil Rock presided over the state Senate with an extra vote to spare, he'd tell this joke: "When I'd get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I didn't know whether to shave or slash my throat."

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.

Some members of the House Black Caucus, for example, differed with Madigan when he gave his belated support to a public works bonding bill in February. Votes from that caucus weren't needed because the bill had Republican support, but Madigan took note of the black caucus' wish to have greater say in a future capital projects bill. Meanwhile, downstaters might settle for a few ribbon cuttings, too. If, say, an agreement could be put together to raise the gas tax, downstaters could get their asphalt and Chicagoans could get dollars for the el.

Still, the pressure along such ideological and geographical faultlines is likely to build. There was some resent-


16 / April 1997 Illinois Issues

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.

"He realizes he has to at least be a little more accommodating to the rank and file if he wants to remain speaker of the House," says Republican Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano of Elmwood Park, whom Madigan tapped as chairman of the House Registration and Regulation Committee.

"The perception that he wants the public to have of him is one of being kinder and gentler because the alternative, he knows, would ultimately be his demise. ... Maybe he's trying to appeal to the suburbanites who traditionally always saw 'Mike Madigan, ward boss for the city of Chicago,' as their enemy. [He knows] that the south suburbs are so crucial for his retention of the speakership. He has to come off with some evidence as somebody the suburbs can work with."

" I think he's very much concerned now about
what [his] reputation is and he wants to change
that," says House Republican leader Lee Daniels,
the man Madigan ousted as speaker.

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.

It is clear at this point that if Madigan is to maintain his majority after 1998, he will have to do it on his own. The status of the 1998 Democratic ticket is too uncertain. U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun could be in trouble and, thus far, there is no clear-cut gubernatorial candidate to take on the popular Edgar if he decides to seek re-election. For his part, Madigan says the unsettled state of the Democratic statewide ticket doesn't trouble him. He intends to seek re-election and to keep his majority.

As for his legacy, Madigan says it's the amount of time he has devoted to the Statehouse.


"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.

Illinois Issues April 1997 / 17

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