Has there ever been a state politician as powerful as Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan?
It’s debatable. But he’s certainly the king of Illinois, and has been for the better part of the past three decades.
His longevity and omnipotence breed apathy in Illinois voters, as his influence can single-handedly muzzle discussion on term limits, independent mapmaking and property tax reform.
No Prairie State politician is disliked more. Madigan’s statewide approval ratings are abysmal. But he isn’t elected statewide. He’s elected in the five square miles surrounding Midway Airport.
According to data from this year’s primary and the past four general elections, Madigan is elected by an average of a mere 20,000 voters. The tiny 22nd district sends Madigan to the Statehouse, where he then wields control over the other 12.8 million Illinoisans not lucky enough to live in the king’s backyard.
Former state Sen. Roger Keats once investigated the speaker’s district, where Madigan was first elected to state office in 1970.
“I started to understand the man,” he said in an interview for a forthcoming documentary about the speaker. “Everybody gets a garbage can, everyone [who] wants a tree they get a tree, the streets are spotless, crime’s almost nonexistent.”
In 2015, even with state spending frozen, Madigan secured a $35 million grant to build a new school in his district by funneling the money through the office of Secretary of State Jesse White.
In short, Madigan takes care of his own. And a rare few have tried to beat him on his own turf.
In March, Madigan faced his first serious primary challenger in 40 years. His name was Jason Gonzalez. And Madigan demolished him.
The day Gonzalez filed his petition signatures to get on the ballot, Madigan was waiting. According to Gonzalez, the speaker’s aide promptly submitted the necessary paperwork for two other candidates with Hispanic last names: Joe Barboza and Grasiela Rodriguez. An NBC 5 investigation found no evidence of an active campaign for either candidate. An address listed for one of the candidates had a Madigan sign in the front yard.
And that wasn’t all.
Madigan sent relentless mailers depicting Gonzalez as a hardened criminal, in reference to Gonzalez’ conviction for unlawful use of a credit card at age 17. After that youthful indiscretion, Gonzalez graduated from Duke, MIT and Harvard, and even received a pardon from Gov. Pat Quinn in 2015.
“He didn’t just want to defeat me,” Gonzalez said of his victorious primary opponent. “He wanted to destroy me.”
Of course, Madigan isn’t a typical state representative. It’s his role as speaker of the House that gives him such outsized power. Illinois citizens don’t get to vote for that position.
Just as Illinoisans elect state representatives, state representatives elect the speaker of the House every two years. To become the speaker, Madigan just needs a majority vote.
“I don’t become the speaker because someone issues an edict,” Madigan said in a 2004 interview. “I become the speaker because there are at least 60 members of the House, generally Democrats, who vote for me to be the speaker.”
The Democratic Party has held a majority in the Illinois House for all but two years since 1983. They can select anyone to be the House speaker. But they choose Madigan every time.
It’s easy to see why. The man has unprecedented authority.
If a Democratic House member doesn’t vote for Madigan, he can take away her campaign money, strip her of any leadership roles and even make sure none of her bills get a hearing.
A Madigan speakership means she can sit back and relax. Take that stealthy $35 million grant, for example. While the largest slice went to Madigan’s district, it also paid for work on a school in the district of state Rep. Dan Burke, D-Chicago. House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, got a $5.5 million cut for two of her schools.
What does this broken system mean for average Illinoisans? It means many don’t really choose their representative in Springfield. They choose Madigan, like him or not.
Should House Democrats hold their majority after the November elections, they’ll choose the speaker once again in January 2017.
Will they stand up to Madigan? Or continue to silence voters by ceding their voice to a single man?