By John Ruberry
Had this event not occurred on the same day President Donald J. Trump was impeached a second time, the failure of Michael Madigan to win a 19th term as speaker of the Illinois House would have made national news. The luck of the Irish was somehow with him on his worst day in his 52 years in politics.
There is much to criticize with Madigan. While the one sentence summary of the Chicago Democrat’s career might be “Longest statehouse speaker tenure in American history,” it instead needs to be, “The man who destroyed Illinois.”
Here’s a graph created by the Illinois Policy Institute–which has been on the forefront of exposing Madigan to the masses for a decade–that shows the decline of Illinois’ credit rating. And the rating began its descent early in Madigan’s tenure as speaker. To be fair, it was Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican, who in 1989 signed into law the annual compounded three-percent cost-of-living public pension raise for retired state employees, but that bill emerged from Madigan’s House. Nearly all state workers are members of public-sector unions, those unions have been an important cog for the Madigan Machine. Other GOP governors share some of the blame for the Illinois pension bomb. But for all but two years since 1983, Madigan was speaker and he had his hands on every budget since then.
Illlinois’ credit rating now hovers slightly over junk status.
The Prairie State has lost population for seven straight years. People have wised up. After the 2020 reapportionment Illinois will once again lose a congressional district. Perhaps two.
Madigan’s political mentor was the first Mayor Daley, Richard J, the legendary boss of Chicago. Madigan was America’s last machine boss. As mayor Daley was also chairman of Cook County Democratic Party, since 1998 Madigan has been chairman of state party, a post that he, at least for now, retains. Like Daley, Madigan would reward his political supporters and their relatives with jobs, usually public-sector jobs. But recent scandals involving private-sector entities, including the Chicago area’s electrical utility, Commonwealth Edison, betrayed the burden of the pension bomb that is eating away at Illinois government. Allegedly ComEd was handing out jobs, as lowly as meter readers, to Madigan loyalists. The ComEd scandal has produced several indictments, including the company’s former CEO and some Madigan loyalists. A separate scandal centered around red-light cameras has bagged other Madigan cronies. These political brushfires, on top of allegations of sexual harrassment against a member of Madigan’s inner circle, finally made the Madigan name toxic.
The result in 2020 was better-than expected results for the anemic Illinois Republican Party. Best of all, the so-called Fair Tax Amendment, would have replaced Illinois’ flat income tax with a graduated one, was resoundingly defeated. A majority of Illinoisans finally ascertained, as I quipped at the time, that if Illinois was given an unlimited budget, politicians here would still exceed it.
Another sin against democracy committed by Madigan is gerrymandered legislative districts, unintended artwork that would make Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso proud. “The state’s legislative map looks like a Rorschach test on steroids,” Robert Reed wrote in 2019 for Chicago Magazine, “with districts of all squiggly sizes and shapes.” With a few exceptions, such as university towns, Republicans dominate downstate Illinois in gubernatorial and presidential races, but there are still plenty of central and Illinois Democratic members of the General Assembly. That is the power of Madigan’s gerrymandering. It also discourages challengers to the status quo; according to the Center Square, last year 44 percent of Illinois legislative races were uncontested. Why run? Because in most districts in Illinois the politicians choose their voters, not the other way around.
Illinoisans would have been better served if there was not a Madigan monoculture in power for years in Springfield.
Groups such as the Better Government Association of Illinois and the League of Women Voters have long called for a Fair Map Amendement, taking away the power of decennial legislative remapping away from the General Assembly and putting a non-partisan panel in charge of the task instead. Twice in the prior decade hundreds of thousands of signatures were collected to put such an amendment on the ballot for voters to decide the issue, twice a lawyer with ties to Madigan successfully sued to keep it off. Last year, for the first time ever, a state Supreme Court justice, Democrat Thomas Kilbride, who represented a downstate district, failed to win retention. His vote against the Fair Map Amendment was one of the issues that galvanized opposition from voters.
Illinois’ Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, finally the state’s most powerful politician now that Madigan is no longer speaker, has vowed only to sign only a fair map into law.
Don’t hold your breath on that one.
Madigan’s successor is Chris Welch, a suburban Chicagoan who was once a member of the Madigan Machine. He’ll be the Land of Lincoln’s first black speaker. But there is already a cloud over him. In 2002 he allegedly slammed the head of his girfriend repeatedly on to a kitchen countertop. Eight years later another woman claimed that she lost her job at a high school because Welch, then a school board president, broke up with her.
Still there is reason to have at least a glimmer for hope in Illinois. But barring a change in federal law that would allow states to declare bankruptcy, Illinois will remain in its financial sewer for many years. A different amendment to the Illinois constitution, one that will allow pension reform and remove the pension guarantee clause, is desperetely needed.
John Ruberry regularly blogs in Illinois at Marathon Pundit.