Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Michael Madigan: The Man Who Ran Illinois

Mike Madigan, far right, at the 2013 signing of the Religious Freedom and Fairness Act .

    I love writing freelance, and have done so for some of the top publications in the world: Esquire, Rolling Stone, Forbes, Granta, The Washington Post ... quite a long list really.
    The reasons hardly need mentioning. Other publications provide an outlet for stories that the paper isn't interested in—there was no way the Sun-Times wanted 6,000 words on being disfigured. But Mosaic, the London website did. It also sent me to Japan for a teddy bear's birthday party, which the paper wasn't going to do either. Esquire asked me to shadow Rahm Emanuel for three days. Men's Journal once hired me to paddle a canoe down the Chicago River. Stuff like that.
    The money's nice, of course. There's also a sense of validation. For a moment, I'm not just a local oddity, but a local oddity echoing faintly in the larger world.
     The requests haven't come in much lately, which I took to be the gathering isolation and irrelevance of age. So I was glad when the Washington Monthly asked me to read Ray Long's new book and write something about the disgrace of Michael Madigan. I asked the editor why he chose me—I have not exactly distinguished myself with my Springfield coverage (the lede is a sly way of saying, "This doesn't generally interest me, but...") He replied that I spoke to Dick Babcock's class at Northwestern seven years ago, and he was in it. A reminder: always be nice to young people coming up, because you never know when you'll be working for one.
    State legislators are like ants on a log. There are too many of them and they are too small, running around too fast to recognize as individuals, let alone track their efforts. Even if the log is in your backyard, why bother paying attention? Given the typical statehouse task—dragging bits of legislative leaf around—only the most dedicated political junkies even bother to try.
     Occasionally, though, one leader plants himself in the center of the action long enough to offer a pathway not just to understand what’s going on in one colony, but also to illuminate the general calamity poisoning our increasingly toxic national political culture: the money, influence, rule bending, and self-dealing that deform government at every level.Meet Michael J. Madigan, the tight-mouthed enigma at the center of the Illinois legislative anthill for more than a third of a century. Nicknamed “the Sphinx” for his expressionless silence and windblown longevity, Madigan was the last operative drive shaft from the old Daley Democratic machine—forged by Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s infamous mayor from 1955 to 1976— where clout was built on a system of mutual support: You vote the right way, and I’ll make sure your son gets a park district job. Throughout his career, Madigan was chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, committeeman of Chicago’s 13th Ward, and speaker of the Illinois House for 36 years, the longest-serving leader of any legislative body in American history.
     Reviled by Republicans as “the center of all evil in state government,” Madigan endured while governors came and went. When Republican Jim Edgar became governor in 1991, Madigan didn’t return his phone calls for months. Madigan didn’t need him; he was served by a patronage army of 400 drones beholden to him for jobs, raises, and promotions, who would leap to campaign, knock on doors, and buttonhole commuters to sign petitions. (Or, in one infamous ploy, the opposite: hectoring residents of Madigan’s district to sign affidavits retracting their signatures on the nominating petitions of a 19-year-old who dared run against the state’s most powerful politician’s chosen alderman. The lad had no chance of winning, but so ruthlessly had the speaker’s operatives clawed signatures back that some 2,600 voters agreed to renounce signatures they had never given.)
     Madigan was an accepted reality of life in Illinois, like the weather, or, more accurate- ly, like God, a mysterious force in His Heaven, spinning works and mysteries.
     Then it all changed.
     First, the #MeToo revolution of 2018 rattled the Madigan organization, taking down his longtime chief of staff, Tim Mapes, and top aide, Kevin Quinn, amid accusations that Madigan didn’t do enough to stop them from sexually harassing their female colleagues. Sunlight started pouring through the cracks. Madigan gave the first deposition in his life. The U.S. Department of Justice’s federal investigation into Madigan’s alleged corruption circled nearer. For years, Madigan had used an electric utility company, Commonwealth Edison, as a “crony job service” that issued direct payments to Madigan’s allies, such as the $4,500 a month it funneled to the Cook County recorder of deeds, Ed Moody, for “consulting.” In return, Madigan advanced legislation that was favorable to the utility. He would also steer business to his private law firm, including clients who had business before the state.

To continue reading, click here.


  1. I grew up hearing ever of Madigan, feels like forever. I will say I'm even more interested in Long's book if he's "no Robert Caro." Respect to Mr. Caro but the Moses & Johnson bios are too damn long; too much creative speculation on "motivation." Let's start w/the story here, how one man wielded so much power for so long. Because he could.

  2. Fantastic article. A dislike of Madigan was one of the few things I could agree on with my ever diminishing group of Republican friends. It is remarkable how guys like Rostenkowski, Vrodolyak, Burke, Madigan and so many others, in spite of their intelligence and savvy, feed at the public trough long after it is prudent to do so - and long after they have a financial need to do so.

  3. As we saw in the Trib article yesterday, Madigan even sold his own daughter down the river, by killing a law she wanted.

  4. Madigan was, and is, a walking, talking argument for term limits.

    Which I don't actually favor. (We already have them; they're called elections.) But anyone arguing in favor of them for Illinois invariably pointed at Madigan.

  5. It's ironic that "quid pro quo," a hackneyed Latin phrase, should have been the cause of Michael Madigan's downfall -- and downfall it is even if he somehow avoids conviction on charges that could, theoretically, have been brought against him at any time in his long career of looking out for number one. Mike no doubt had 3 or 4 years of Latin in high school, as did I and many others who attended Catholic high schools in the 50s, and well knew what the phrase meant, but he carelessly let it go and then made that worse by emphasizing that one shouldn't use the phrase because of its inherent evil connotation. I'll bet he beats the rap, but that's hardly the sendoff that one might have thought likely at any other time during his long reign.


  6. I care even less about the ants on the Springfield log than you do, Madigan included, but this is a fine piece, which will go a long way toward satiating whatever minor curiosity I have about him.

    Says there in your personal bio: "His next book, Every Goddamn Day, based on his blog of the same name, is being published this fall by the University of Chicago Press." Does that mean the title has been officially decided upon? Last I recall, it seemed to still be a topic of discussion.

  7. Ohio has had more than its share of lowlife dirtbags, but Columbus doesn't come close to being the cesspool that Springfield has always been in my lifetime. Nothing like the four governors who went to prison, or the state auditor (Orville Hodge) who embezzled millions, or Paul Powell and his shoeboxes full of cash. I got sick of hearing about Madigan decades ago, and always tuned his name out. One thing that's for damn sure...I'm glad I don't live in Illinois anymore.

    1. As a native Buckeye living in Gov. Pritzker's blue utopia (ha-ha), I don't particularly think I'd want to be back in the motherland of Ohio, witnessing up close its sad transition into an ever redder state. Sherrod Brown (whom I met long ago) is a keeper; aside from him, one of the last optimistic signs I saw was when Republicans attempted to stop the Biggest Loser by backing Kasich in the 2016 primary. Given the 2 presidential elections since then, that seems like a long time ago, indeed.

    2. Cleveland is a shrinking blue island in a Red Sea. For a long time, I've called Ohio "North Missitucky"...but it's become so red over the last three decades that I've taken to calling it "Oklahio"...and I'd be happy to leave it. But my wife's family has lived here since the 1880s. So we're not going anywhere.


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