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Longtime Illinois House Speaker in jeopardy as Dems break ranks

The Hill logo The Hill 12/2/2020 Reid Wilson
a man in a suit sitting at a table: Longtime Illinois House Speaker in jeopardy as Dems break ranks © Getty Images Longtime Illinois House Speaker in jeopardy as Dems break ranks

The longest-serving state legislative leader in the United States and one of the nation's last political bosses is fighting to keep his job as a growing number of fellow Democrats say they will not support him for another term in the midst of a swirling federal investigation that has led to charges against several confidantes.

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan has held the Speakership for 35 of the last 37 years, interrupted only by a two-year window of Republican control in the mid-1990s. He has maintained power by carefully delivering for his core constituency, the Chicagoland Democrats who make up the bulk of the state House caucus.

But now, Madigan's future is in jeopardy. Nineteen of the 73 Democrats who will be sworn into office next month have said publicly they will not support Madigan for another term, enough to deny him the 60 votes he would need to win election.

"The first question was, is there a clear and unwavering group that will keep Madigan from getting 60 votes," said Rep. Bob Morgan (D), one of the 19 who has said he will not support the incumbent. "I think that question has been answered - the answer is yes."

Over nearly half a century in the legislature, Madigan has built a power base unrivaled in the state - so much so that former Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) called Madigan the de facto chief executive while the two of them fought a bitter budget battle.

"He is the most powerful member of the state legislature," said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and a political scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago. "He controls whether or not legislation gets heard and usually whether or not it passes. He is central to state government and has been under both Democratic and Republican governors."

But Madigan's grip on power began to slip a few years ago after a "Me Too" scandal involving one of his top aides. It has further eroded as federal authorities investigate the lobbying practices of Commonwealth Edison, one of the state's largest utilities, and its connection to the Madigan machine.

A close Madigan confidant, Michael McClain, and three others associated with the company pleaded not guilty in federal court on Wednesday to charges of operating a bribery scheme meant to win favor with Madigan. Federal agents last year searched at least nine homes and offices in connection with the investigation.

Madigan has not been charged with a crime. He has denied wrongdoing. He said in November he would run for another term as Speaker.

"The decision on the next speaker of the Illinois House will be made at a caucus, after a full discussion of the issues facing our state and the qualifications of the candidates," Madigan said in a statement. "I plan to be a candidate for speaker, and I confirmed that I continue to have support from a significant number of House Democratic caucus members."

Asked for comment, a Madigan spokesman said there was nothing more to add to his statement.

The latest charges against his associates have further shaken Madigan's support. On Tuesday, state House Democratic Caucus Chair Kathleen Willis became the first member of Madigan's leadership team to say she would oppose his reelection.

"I feel strongly that our caucus has a lot of hard work to accomplish in the upcoming legislative session and we need to put the distraction that has been created by Representative Madigan behind us and move forward in mending the State of Illinois," Willis wrote to colleagues on Tuesday. "We need to confront issues regarding Covid-19 and health care, ending systemic racism, ethics reform, and protecting the services offered by our state to our most vulnerable."

The problem the recalcitrant Democrats face, though, is that no alternative candidate has yet emerged. Up to a dozen members may be considering their own bids if Madigan surrenders, and a battle over the Speakership would expose faults among a Democratic caucus divided by race, ideology and generational lines.

"There's not yet agreement about who should replace him, or even a front-runner," Simpson said. "It's going to be a free-for-all because there's no obvious person who's declared."

Madigan is also the chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, a post for which he will also seek reelection next year.

When legislators are sworn in on Jan. 13, their first order of business will be electing a new Speaker. If no candidate reaches 60 votes, Madigan will retain the title, though he will have no formal powers; the House would instead be run by Secretary of State Jesse White (D) until someone reaches the 60 votes necessary to win the Speakership.

The result of a deadlocked House, observers said, could be months of chaos if Madigan refuses to concede - at a time when a global pandemic has sickened nearly three quarters of a million Illinoisans and killed more than 13,000.

"A lot of us want to pass comprehensive social equity reforms or combat climate change or support small business that's suffering. We have a massive budget problem at the moment," Morgan said. "And we can't deal with that when there's an individual who believes that his power is the most significant question in the state."

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