With election season upon us, one man’s face will fill the mailboxes of Illinoisans more than any other. His visage will flash across screens constantly. Low voices will utter his name over radio waves.
Of course, I’m talking about the longest-serving state House speaker in American history, Mike Madigan.
The man is widely despised, yet he retains extraordinary power. That puts quite a few Democratic representatives in a trick bag.
The candidates facing the toughest races need cash to keep the lights on. But with the most unpopular politician in the state holding the purse strings for the party, that money isn’t “clean.” There is a price to pay.
Madigan is the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois and controls its campaign spending. He is the only legislative leader in the country who is also a state party chairman. He’s also chairman of three other active committees: Friends of Michael J. Madigan, the 13th Ward Democratic Association and Democratic Majority.
More than 60 sitting state representatives have received money from one or more of those committees over the course of their careers, totaling around $15 million. And many of the top recipients find themselves in tough races this fall.
Incumbent state Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, tops the table among those running for a seat. He’s received nearly $1.5 million in donations and in-kind contributions from Madigan’s committees. State Rep. Carol Sente, D-Vernon Hills, is the only sitting lawmaker who has received more, but she’s not seeking re-election.
The following state representatives running for re-election have received more than half a million dollars from Madigan’s committees:
- Deb Conroy, D-Villa Park ($1,313,932)
- Marty Moylan, D-Des Plaines ($981,242)
- Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estate ($895,336)
- Sue Scherer, D-Decatur ($892,609)
- Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville ($869,501)
- Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumburg ($869,089)
- Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego ($732,852)
- Kathleen Willis, D-Addison ($588,821)
- Natalie Manley, D-Joliet ($535,940)
Second, they don’t capture the dollars funneled to candidates by other organizations at Madigan’s behest. The speaker has directly funded 10 members of his caucus with over half a million dollars each, but that by no means is the only way he provides support to candidates. In districts where his name is particularly toxic, he can direct loyal lieutenants – most commonly labor unions – to fund candidates directly.
Madigan’s money itself might not be a problem for some state lawmakers. Of course, on the other side of the aisle, Gov. Bruce Rauner heavily funds the Republican Party, which then backs candidates in tough races. He is also unpopular at the moment. But there is a key difference.
No other state gives its House speaker so much power over the legislative process. And Madigan just needs one vote every two years to retain that iron grip: the vote for speaker.
Each lawmaker who has received more than half a million dollars from Madigan has, in exchange, dutifully given him that key vote. Collectively, they’ve cast 36 speaker votes for the man who’s held the gavel for 34 years.
Madigan gives money to lawmaker. Lawmaker gives ultimate power to Madigan. The campaign mailers write themselves.
Some lawmakers have yet to feel the pressure that comes with an influx of Madigan cash. Take Natalie Phelps Finnie, for example, who was appointed to her cousin’s Democratic House seat in southern Illinois last year and has received less than $1,000 from Madigan committees. As the Democratic Party tries to hold on to that seat in a district that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in 2016, one can expect money from the speaker to flow into the district one way or another.
As that happens, calls for independence from the speaker’s money will surely only grow louder within her district – as they will throughout the state.
Will she, or others, give in to that pressure? Not if history is any indicator. After all, the Democratic state representatives who do usually add “former” to their job title soon after.