Amid corruption probe, some Democrats say they are ready for end of Michael Madigan’s reign as speaker
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Michael Madigan has been speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives for all but two years since 1983.
This coming week, Mr. Madigan, one of the last of the old guard brought up under the wing of legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, could lose his position as head of the legislature.
A federal corruption probe prompted a big group of his fellow Democrats to pledge to vote for a new speaker.
On Wednesday, a new legislative session begins and a speaker must be elected, according to the state constitution. Lawmakers began a special session Friday and are expected to meet in a number of party caucuses before the vote.
Already, 19 out of the 73 House Democrats who won re-election have publicly said they want a new speaker. Without their support, Mr. Madigan, 78 years old, wouldn’t have a majority in a vote of the full House. Two candidates have formally put themselves forward for the job.
“Enough is enough. The people of Illinois deserve new leadership, and they deserve to have a government they can trust,” Democratic Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of the Chicago suburb of Oswego said in an interview. Ms. Kifowit was the first member to announce she is running for speaker.
Mr. Madigan declined to comment. His spokesman pointed to previous statements in which he denied wrongdoing. He has recused himself from legislative committees looking into the allegations.
In July, Mr. Madigan was referred to as Public Official A in a federal deferred prosecution agreement with Commonwealth Edison. The Exelon Corp. subsidiary agreed to pay a $200 million fine to resolve charges that it had handed out jobs and internships to Mr. Madigan’s associates in a bid to win support from Mr. Madigan for its legislative agenda.
A second indictment in November leveled charges against two former ComEd officials, a consultant and a lobbyist who is a longtime friend of Mr. Madigan for allegedly arranging jobs, contracts and payments in some cases for little to no work for Mr. Madigan’s associates, according to the indictment.
The U.S. attorney’s office said the investigation is active. It declined to comment on whether Mr. Madigan was a target. The four officials named in the second indictment have denied wrongdoing.
“They are concerned he’s dragging the party down, and it’s only going to get worse,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “The normal process with the feds is to start at the bottom and work their way up the chain. The real question is does anybody have evidence that Madigan directly ordered something improper,” said Mr. Simpson, who has written about corruption in the state.
“I have never made a legislative decision with improper motives,” Mr. Madigan said in a statement in September. “The notion that the passage of two consequential pieces of energy legislation was tied to the hiring or retention of a few individuals is seriously mistaken.”
Mr. Madigan won the endorsement of the legislature’s Black caucus, picked up some support in the Hispanic caucus and has appeared at a forum of the women’s caucus in his bid to gather votes for this week’s speaker election.
“I have spent my entire career supporting Democrats, regardless of differences in perspective within our party,” he said in another earlier statement.
Mr. Madigan rose to power in the era of the first Mayor Daley, who was both mayor of the city and head of the local Democratic Party, giving him control over not only the city’s budget, but also broad influence over who got elected to key roles in the city. In 1998, four years after Democrats briefly lost control of the House, Mr. Madigan took a page from Mr. Daley’s playbook, and became head of the state Democratic Party. That gave him control of a campaign war chest that allowed him another lever to assure the loyalty of members of the Democratic caucus.
The Democrats lost one state House seat in the November election, reducing their majority to 73-35. They picked up one seat in the state Senate, where they also have a majority. Voters in November also rejected a constitutional amendment that would have created a progressive income tax, generating much-needed revenue for Illinois, which faces the largest unfunded pension liability of any U.S. state.
Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, a Chicago member of the Black caucus, said he is supporting Mr. Madigan for what Mr. Ford considers a final term to allow the speaker to put a successor in place for a smooth transition. With the state facing a huge budget gap due to the economic slowdown from Covid-19, the continuing health crisis and longer-term problems like the pension debt, the legislature needs to get to work right away, Mr. Ford said. “This is just the wrong time for fighting amongst Democrats,” he said.
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