“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.
Madigan has seen seven governors, more than 200 state senators and more than 500 state representatives pass through Springfield while serving as speaker. 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. It saw the nation’s worst population decline over the last decade. 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.
Over his 18 terms as speaker, Madigan has seen only three House Democrats refuse to cast a vote for him.
How has one man consolidated so much power? Five key 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. He’s held the state’s top party post since 1998.
In addition to his lobbyist list, McClain maintained a “magic Excel sheet” of key political donors dubbed the “Most Trusted of the Trusted.” As of 2018, more than 60 sitting state representatives had received money from Madigan-controlled campaign committees over the course of their careers, totaling around $15 million.
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.
The speaker’s firm dominates the property tax appeals business. From 2011 to 2016, Madigan’s firm appealed property taxes for more than 4,200 parcels totaling more than $8.6 billion in assessed value, according to a joint investigation from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. No other firm handled more value in commercial and industrial properties over that time.
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. After becoming the 13th Ward committeeman in 1969, Madigan quickly began planting locals in government jobs and turning them into foot soldiers for the Democratic Party.
“[I]n those days, when I became the ward committeeman, that was the biggest thing around,” Madigan said in a 2009 interview as part of the oral history of the late Chicago mayor. “I mean, everybody wanted to be a ward committeeman. They knew the power of the patronage system.”
His candor was disturbing. “They wanted a job in the patronage system,” Madigan said. “I would tell them, ‘Yes, we can put you in a job. But you’re going to work for the Democratic Party.’”
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. A 2014 Tribune investigation identified more than 400 current or retired government employees who moonlight as political workers for Madigan or donate regularly to his campaigns. That’s a conservative estimate. A newly surfaced email from 2012 shows 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.” Ashby later went to work for Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign following McClain’s recommendation.
Illinoisans have a choice
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. 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.”
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 interests.