Reeder: Mike Madigan and his marionettes
By Scott Reeder email@example.com June 3, 2013 10:42PM
Updated: July 5, 2013 2:40PM
Twenty-five years ago, I covered my first session of the Illinois General Assembly.
During the waning days of that session, the words most often heard were, “What will Mike Madigan do?”
Back then, Democrat Phil Rock presided over the Senate as its president, and Big Jim Thompson was entrenched in the governor’s mansion.
But it was Madigan (D-Chicago) who ran things as speaker of the House. No one in the know doubted that.
Madigan is the consummate South Sider, a proud White Sox fan, a shrewd politician and a behind-the-scenes dealmaker.
Back then, the White Sox were threatening to move to Tampa. Newspaper reporters were writing front-page obituaries for the once-proud Chicago team.
Madigan remained quiet.
Suddenly, in the waning minutes of the legislative session, the creaky wheels of the General Assembly began to turn swiftly. A last-minute deal was cut, and taxpayers suddenly were paying to build a new ball park for the Sox, which they would play in for decades nearly rent free.
Never mind that the hands of the clock had slipped a bit past midnight when the House cast its vote for the arrangement and kept the Sox in Chicago. A Madigan minion working the podium declared that it was still yesterday and the regular legislative session had not ended.
Yes, Mike Madigan held back the hands of time.
Madigan is not omnipotent, but in state politics he’s as close as you can get this side of the pearly gates. For more than a generation, he has been The Man in Charge.
Ironically, those in Madigan’s Democratic caucus are usually as clueless about what their leader has planned as are their Republican counterparts.
Republican members of the House, where Madigan now has a veto-proof majority (in no small part because of his legislative mapmaking skills), complain about being left in the dark and often vote against his measures.
But Democrats, for the most part, feel compelled to follow their leader. They may not always like it. But they follow.
Why? Part of it is that the General Assembly is a rather transitory institution, with members coming and going over the years, but few making it their life’s calling.
Madigan, of course, is the exception. He’s been in the House since 1971, longer than anyone. And he has held the powerful speaker post since 1983 (except for two years in the mid-90s).
When bright, and sometimes dull, new lawmakers get elected, his staff works with them. They learn quickly — please the speaker and good things will happen for you and your district.
Madigan also is the state Democratic Party chairman and has a huge campaign fund and political organization that can greatly aid a House member’s candidacy. Follow his orders and be loyal, and you may get some of that cash for your campaign.
But get on Madigan’s bad side, and your legislation never will see the light of day, you’ll get lousy committee assignments, lose opportunities for more pay and be ostracized by your colleagues.
That lock-step, follow-the-leader mentality was evident last week during the final days of the spring session. Amid several major pieces of legislation, from pension reform to concealed carry to the state budget, the House, as usual, voted the way Madigan wanted it to.
The state budget bill was dropped in the laps of lawmakers with little notice.
They didn’t have the time or opportunity — and in some instances the inclination — to review the voluminous budget documents. And yet they were expected to vote yes and be quiet.
Nor has there been opportunity for the public to see what the budget contains.
This is the opaque world in which Mike Madigan presides.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.