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Michael Madigan exits the Illinois stage

Chicago Tribune

Friday, February 19, 2021  |  Editorial  |  EDITORIAL BOARD

Madigan, Michael--State House, 22

“Fifty years ago, I decided to dedicate my life to public service. Simply put, I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I believed then and still do today that it is our duty as public servants to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and help hardworking people build a good life. These ideals have been the cornerstone of my work on behalf of the people of Illinois and the driving force throughout my time in the Illinois House.”


— Michael Madigan, announcing his retirement on Thursday, Feb. 18


Dozens of people over the years advised former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to call it quits. Some of them did it privately. Some of them did it jokingly. Some of them did it publicly, including members of his own caucus who grew weary of having to confront “the Madigan question” at countless front stoops. As his popularity plummeted, his Democratic members felt the taint.


We recall former Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills shaking her head as she described conversations she had with the speaker, nudging him to retire, to spend more time with his family, to travel, to leave while he was ahead. She, like many Democrats in Springfield, faced frustrated constituents who wanted change at the top.


But Madigan stayed.


There was a time during the Rod Blagojevich era when Madigan was viewed as a savior — the only levelheaded person in Springfield, stuck dealing with a dippy governor who later went to prison on corruption charges. We recall the late Paul Green, professor and political scientist, proclaiming at the time: “Thank God for Mike Madigan.”


Madigan stayed.


The Illinois Republican Party turned up the political heat with a “Save Illinois: Fire Madigan” campaign at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The GOP had buttons and T-shirts and monogrammed pencils. The party gradually made every election about Madigan as the state sunk deeper in debt. At one point, then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan began a serious exploration of running for governor. She swiftly pulled the plug when it became apparent her father had no plans to step down.


Madigan stayed.


Over the past several years, in addition to increased criticism over the state’s financial health and shrinking population, he survived a sexual harassment scandal involving his top lieutenants, and so far, a federal corruption case that identified him as Public Official A in a bribery complaint against ComEd. He has not been charged.


He has survived the indictments of close associates. He almost got reelected speaker for another two-year term last month, falling just a handful of votes shy, days before the election. He withdrew his name for speaker, realizing it was time for him to move aside from that post.


He still stayed — until Thursday when he announced he would resign from his state House seat representing Chicago’s Southwest Side and won’t complete the term to which he was elected in November.

More from his resignation letter:


“As speaker, legislator and member of the Illinois Constitutional Convention, I worked to make the General Assembly a co-equal branch of government, ensuring it acted as a check on the power of the governor and the executive branch, especially around a governor’s abuse of the amendatory veto. Many heated battles were fought to keep governors from rewriting legislation sent to them by the General Assembly.


“I am particularly proud of our work to increase the diversity of voices in the House Democratic Caucus to include more women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. In my tenure as Illinois House speaker, we worked to elect representatives across all backgrounds and beliefs to truly represent the interests of the people of our state.


“With the partnership of this diverse and talented group of Illinois Democrats and with our colleagues across the aisle, we were able to level the playing field and strengthen the middle class while workers in other states saw their wages diminished.”


Madigan racked up successes for his party and built a solid supermajority in the House that is likely to remain for years to come. That will be part of his legacy.


But he also leaves behind a state that is crippled with debt and unfunded pension liabilities, and a voting population that has grown apathetic and hopeless. He leaves behind a state that borrowed and spent on the backs of those middle-class workers he claimed to represent. He leaves behind a state that cannot take care of its most vulnerable to a level they deserve because of his hyper-focus on politics over policy. He leaves behind a state that is shrinking while each of Illinois’ neighbors is growing.


Governors and Senate presidents came and went. But Madigan stayed.


That history cannot be rewritten. It is part of his legacy too.


Michael Madigan, the nation’s longest serving House speaker, is about to become Michael Madigan, private citizen. Here’s hoping he’s more successful in the new role than he was in the old one.