America’s Last Machine Boss Goes Down

Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois Representatives, listens to the State of the State address at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., in 2012. (Sarah Conard/Reuters)

For decades, Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan dominated the state’s political system, corrupting it to his own ends. What should we make of his ouster?

The Chicago machine turned out some of the most notorious names in American public corruption, including Anton Cermak, Richard J. Daley, and Ed Kelly. The machine also turned out Mike Madigan, who ruled over Illinois politics for 50 years, 36 of which he spent calling the shots as House speaker.

Most people thought Madigan would only leave office in handcuffs or a casket. Most people were wrong. For the first time since 1970, “the Velvet Hammer” is not representing Chicago’s southwest side in the state capitol: Madigan announced his resignation on Feb. 18, just weeks after losing his spot as House speaker when his Democratic caucus abandoned him.

Madigan is the most skilled politician you’ve never heard of and the most powerful state-level official in American history. During his tenure, the mission of Illinois government could be summed up in a question:

“What’s in it for me?”

Madigan’s dominance of state and local politics will never be matched, and it came at the expense of a once-proud state, which now must claw its way out of the mess he made. But to make sense of that mess and the man’s monumental career — to understand how Illinois got here and how it can move forward — you have to start at the beginning.

Madigan’s first job for the machine was hauling its trash.

His father, Mike Sr., a foot soldier of then-mayor Richard J. Daley, got his son a job on the back of a city dump truck. Daley controlled more than 40,000 such patronage jobs at the time. And Madigan would have seen many of the others lucky enough to receive one on his route, whisking waste away from construction sites.

Cermak and others had built the Chicago Democratic machine by, among other things, distributing power across white ethnic groups and making deals with organized crime. But Daley’s specialty was creating patronage armies through federal grants. That money often funded “slum clearance,” the building of new highways and public housing, and other construction projects, all of which in turn helped cement the foundation of a hyper-segregated city.

After his stint on the truck and a job in the city’s law department — another gift from Daley — Madigan was elected to a coveted local ward-committeeman position in 1969.

“I mean, everybody wanted to be a ward committeeman. They knew the power of the patronage system,” Madigan said in an interview granted as part of an oral history of the Daley years. “They wanted a job in the patronage system. . . . I would tell them, ‘Yes, we can put you in a job. But you’re going to work for the Democratic Party.’”

Newly minted as a committeeman, Madigan was sent to the 1970 Illinois Constitutional Convention as a delegate representing Daley’s interests. He voted for the most constricting “pension protection” clause in the nation, which guaranteed government-employee unions benefits the government couldn’t afford in exchange for their backing of the Democratic machine, tying the state to an anchor of massive debt in perpetuity. He also voted for changes in the property-tax system that would later make him a millionaire through his law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner, which specialized in appealing the tax assessments of the most valuable real estate in the Midwest and skimming off the reductions granted by political allies who heard the firm’s appeals.

Later that year, Madigan was elected state representative for the 22nd House District of Illinois. He would go on to be reelected 25 times, eventually being elevated to House speaker after he was made gerrymanderer-in-chief following the 1980 Census. The redistricting process had been expected to hurt Democrats badly, but Madigan’s cartographical cunning staved off a political bloodbath and earned him the title of “political wizard” from the Chicago Tribune. Many representatives now owed their seats to his pen, and they elected him speaker in 1983.

For all but two of the next 38 years, he would hold the speaker’s gavel, wielding parliamentary rules that gave him more power than any other legislative leader in the country. His one-man rule was finally merged with the party power structure in 1998, when he became chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. This made him a one-stop shop for special interests looking to pass or kill legislation. Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest utility provider, last year was forced to pay a $200 million fine for attempting to bribe Madigan by providing no-work contracts and other perks to the speaker’s inner circle. Though he denied wrongdoing, the scandal ultimately hastened his downfall.

The wreckage of Madigan’s decades-long reign is obvious. When he became speaker in 1983, Illinois had a perfect credit rating. Since 2013, it’s had the worst credit rating in the nation, just one notch above junk. The reason is that while Daley built his political army with federal money, Madigan built his with state money, specifically state debt. Political foot soldiers owed generous pensions, early retirements, and other perks to the speaker’s protection. His fingerprints are on nearly every bill that enhanced state pension benefits, borrowed money to cover their costs, or shorted contributions to the systems to avoid difficult choices over the course of his 50 years in power.

The result of all those unsustainable promises is the most severe public-pension crisis in U.S. history, one with far-reaching implications for Illinois government. Since 2000, the state has cut spending on child welfare and other programs that help those in need by one-third after adjusting for inflation. Over the same time, spending on pensions and pension debt has increased 501 percent. The same story plays out at the local level, as Illinoisans are saddled with property-tax bills on par with their mortgages — bills that sap home equity out of once-prosperous Black communities, particularly — in exchange for sub-par services that get worse each year.

That, more than anything else, is Madigan’s legacy: state and local governments that are pension-management systems with incidental service arms. The work of outside experts such as J.P. Morgan’s Michael Cembalest has clearly shown that there’s no feasible way to adequately fund the system through tax hikes. Short of a constitutional amendment allowing for changes to benefits, the only option is insolvency.

When outsiders think of corruption in Illinois, they probably imagine Rod Blagojevich attempting to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate. And indeed, that sort of naked abuse of power is rampant: The state has experienced an average of more than one public-corruption conviction per week since Madigan took the speakership. But the larger problem is a system in which politicians use taxpayer resources solely as a means to reinforce their own power, and it’s no coincidence that Madigan fell only after Illinoisans started to catch on to his game.

As recently as 2012, a plurality of Illinoisans had no opinion on Madigan or didn’t know who he was. Seven years later, after reporters and researchers had worked to reveal the Madigan machine’s malfeasance, more than 70 percent of Illinois voters viewed the speaker unfavorably. As a result, Democrats in the state House finally turned on him out of fear of further angering their constituents.

So now, Madigan enters a retirement looking forward to around $2.9 million in pension benefits, while Illinois presses forward into an uncertain future. Every autocrat’s downfall brings chaos and historic opportunities for change. With Madigan gone, Governor J.B. Pritzker and others can no longer ignore the need for commonsense reforms to Illinois’s ethics laws and pension system.

The bill is coming due for decades of corrupt, short-sighted governance, and the man most responsible for running it up has left the building.

Austin Berg is the vice president of marketing at the Illinois Policy Institute and the writer of the documentary Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.

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