Michael Madigan’s departure from the Illinois House, announced Feb. 18, set off a torrent of “end of an era”-style coverage, and rightly so. His abrupt disappearance from the House floor—and, more significantly, from the backrooms and hallways where the real dealmaking gets done—marks the end of the active political life of a man who was
Michael Madigan’s departure from the Illinois House, announced Feb. 18, set off a torrent of “end of an era”-style coverage, and rightly so. His abrupt disappearance from the House floor—and, more significantly, from the backrooms and hallways where the real dealmaking gets done—marks the end of the active political life of a man who was the longest-serving leader of any state or federal body in U.S. history. Madigan was elected to the House in November 1970 and became speaker in 1983. Just to put that in some perspective: When Madigan first took the oath of office on Jan. 13, 1971, at age 28, J.B. Pritzker was a few days shy of his sixth birthday. Lori Lightfoot was 8. Chris Welch, Madigan’s successor in the speaker’s chair, was yet to be born. He arrived on Feb. 6 of that year.
So it is right to examine this powerful pol’s legacy, and there’s no doubt his vise-like grip on Illinois politics will be studied—and in many quarters, lamented—for years to come.
But we would prefer to look ahead at this moment. While Madigan’s power has certainly been diminished since a federal probe has all but encircled him and his janissaries—so much so that he actually relinquished the speakership in January—few foresaw that he would retire altogether quite so soon. Of course, as long as Madigan remains chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, with control of a campaign war chest in the $15 million range, he will be a force to be reckoned with in Illinois. But his influence will now operate mainly at the sidelines. The ultimate power over the Legislature will no longer be his to wield.
Illinoisans need not squander what has fallen unexpectedly into our lap with the exit of a House leader who, for the good of the state, should have bowed out a long time ago.
For all the hand-wringing over Madigan’s apparent unwillingness to fix what’s broken in Illinois government—and, with the state virtually bankrupt, that hand-wringing is justified—there remains a nagging feeling that Madigan may have been as much a symptom as a cause of this state’s woes. As Crain’s columnist Greg Hinz put it in an assessment of Madigan’s legacy, “You have to ask whether Madigan in many ways wasn’t exactly what his caucus, much of the Democratic Party and even some others really wanted: a strongman who knew how to get things done.”
To be sure, Madigan—aptly nicknamed “the Velvet Hammer”—is not the first political boss this state has ever seen. But if Illinois is to pull itself out of a financial morass created by decades of fiscal mismanagement, he truly must be the last. Illinois has proved, over and over again, that boss-man politics may yield short-term benefits for the few, but it can spell disaster for the many who ultimately must pay the tab for the insiders’ indulgences.
Now is an opportunity for the lawmakers who remain in Springfield to seize the moment and push for fair, effective and transparent government. Some will scoff at the very idea—voters and taxpayers have learned too well, over the course of dismal decades, to be cynical about Illinois politics. But imagining change is an important step toward realizing it. Demanding change is the next step after that—and it’s on us, as voters and taxpayers, to quit trading the state’s overall welfare for the favors that can be bestowed by any boss-man.
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