The level of drama in Washington D.C. right now would typically be enough to wash state politics to the wayside during election season.
But in Illinois that remains to be seen. Why? Voters still have Mike Madigan on the mind. The speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives remains a key campaign issue despite national headlines.
Even with all that attention, however, the anatomy of the speaker’s power can be tough for the average voter to suss out. How has the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history remained in office for so long? Who’s to blame? Will his dominance ever cease?
First things first: How does Madigan get to Springfield in the first place?
The answer lies near Midway Airport on Chicago’s Southwest Side. This is Madigan’s House district: the tiny 22nd. It’s where Madigan grew up under the care of the 13th Ward political organization – his father, Mike, was the ward superintendent and his uncle, Tom, was a precinct captain. In fact, local precinct captains gave Madigan his first taste of political power in 1969 when they elected him to the office of ward committeeman, a party position he holds to this day.
As of the 2018 primary, the 22nd district was home to a little over 57,000 registered voters. Less than 18,200 of them cast a vote in the primary. And around 12,600 of them cast a vote for Madigan, who ran unopposed.
Every two years, over the last five general elections, he has received fewer than 22,000 votes on average. It is those Illinoisans – less than 0.2 percent of the state’s population – who send Madigan to Springfield.
Just 21 percent of Illinois voters approve of the speaker, according to the most recent polling from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. So how does a man with such dismal approval ratings throughout the state keep getting re-elected? The logic is simple. It’s good to ride with the king.
One example: In July 2015, while Illinois government was tight on money during the budget impasse, Madigan landed millions of state dollars to build a new school in his district by funneling the cash through Secretary of State Jesse White’s office.
That’s why they send him to Springfield.
But getting angry at the residents of the 22nd district is of little use, if only because taking down Madigan on his own turf is a pipe dream. They are voting in their self-interest. And these Illinoisans don’t really cast the vote that gives Madigan more power than any state legislative leader in the country.
State representatives do.
“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.”
Those representatives who don’t stand up to Madigan for fear of losing campaign dollars, committee chairmanships, the ability to have bills passed and more are those who are to blame for the speaker’s dominance.
Just like residents in the 22nd district, their vote for the speaker is self-interested.
Since Madigan serves as the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, campaign cash that the party sends to its candidates comes with the obligation to back Madigan as speaker. This expectation invites constant questioning from the press on how these candidates will remain independent from leadership. Some call this problem the “Madigan tax.”
It should be noted that this phenomenon runs completely counter to the model of maintaining political power that was perfected by Madigan’s most prominent mentor, the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
The key to Daley’s decadeslong dominance serves as the title of a 1976 book by University of Illinois Chicago Professor Milton Rakove on the Chicago political machine, “Don’t Make No Waves…Don’t Back No Losers.”
The first command, “don’t make no waves,” means politicians must remove themselves as much as possible from controversial decisions and unfavorable media attention. The idea is simple: The people who hated you for a contentious decision will walk 10 miles in the snow to vote for your opponent. The voters who liked it? They’ll forget it ever happened in three months.
Madigan flew largely under the radar for decades in the public consciousness because he never ran for statewide office. It was not until recently that he became widely known as the key player behind tax hikes, reckless borrowing and broken budgets over his 33 years with the speaker’s gavel.
As his name recognition has skyrocketed, Madigan is a walking “wave.” His reputation is a weight on the neck of every Democratic candidate.
Come November, that could make the second command – “don’t back no losers” – more difficult.