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With Madigan gone, can Illinois afford a Munchkin

Chicago Tribune

Friday, February 19, 2021  |  Article  |  John Kass

Illinois and its great city of Chicago — suffering crushing taxes, political corruption and now a rush of outmigration by thousands of productive taxpayers — is no land of fairy tales.


The people know the truth of it. There is no happy ending over the rainbow for us.


But there was a brief Munchkin moment the other day. It happened when Boss Madigan, the Khan of Madiganistan with all that federal heat on him, abruptly resigned the seat in the Illinois legislature he has held since 1971.


He’d already been ousted from his powerful post as House speaker, which he’d held for 36 years.


When he resigned his House seat, too, there again was talk of a new day in Illinois.


And a few Munchkins wanted to dance on the yellow brick road leading out of state and sing: “Ding-dong! The Witch King is dead!”


But he’s not dead. He’s not even been indicted.


And how can there be a new day when what was done in all the old days leading up to this is finally catching up to every one of us?


How can there be a new day with that rookie billionaire governor, born on third base with a fat checkbook thinking he hit a triple, can’t even make his way to home? He’s desperate for federal bailouts to shield him from decisions he doesn’t have the will to make.


And that rookie mayor hoping not to be devoured by her own left flank, blaming others, fighting all that evil statuary in the city parks to distract from her now publicly documented failure in handling the devastating waves of downtown looting over the summer.


Each of them is overwhelmed. But they weren’t in power when Illinois and Chicago began to go sour. Madigan was.


A great state and a great city don’t get sick overnight. It takes hard work. And there were decades and decades of old days in which Democrats and Republicans, the Thompsons and the Edgars and the Daleys, Madigan and all the rest, spent the state and Chicago into crushing public worker pension debt.


They paid for their political power with your tax dollars. They used those tax dollars to buy political support from the public workers unions that now dictate our politics. Not one of the politicians will die broke.


They spent your future. And voters approved by voting them in again and again. So, blaming Madigan alone lets all of us off the hook. Politics now in Illinois is about herding the people, using their emotions as the shepherd’s goad. But you don’t use feelings when figuring out your own futures at your own kitchen tables, wondering if you’ll be able to afford to live here.


I won’t lie to you. What’s coming isn’t good. The Tribune Editorial Board has been warning you, and so have I in this column for years.


With changes on the horizon, at the newspaper, for the city, for the state, it just isn’t worth it to plead or whine or spin fairy tales. Each of us must look at the thing for what really is. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. With Madigan gone, think of Yugoslavia after Tito.


I suppose I’m one of those critics Madigan referred to in his resignation letter:


“It’s no secret that I have been the target of vicious attacks by people who sought to diminish my many achievements lifting up the working people of Illinois.”


The Khan of Madiganistan made a fortune in his private law practice as a property tax reduction attorney. Being the political boss who helped pick judges and assessors and drew the political maps while controlling tax policy through the speaker’s gavel probably didn’t hurt.


Madigan wasn’t a statewide leader. He cared only about Madigan and the people of his ward. Yet after decades as boss, look upon his works, ye mighty, and consider:


Illinois Republicans are rudderless and weak. Democrats are in power nationally and locally. They’re the identity politics party with constituency groups defined by race and gender. Those constituencies, by definition, are destined to clash. What’ll soothe them are tax dollars, but the taxpayers, knowing this, flee in the great Illinois Exodus.


“Everybody who knows how things work in politics knows what’ll happen,” a friend of Madigan’s told me Friday. “Mike’s better off. Let them try to run things now.”


Madigan is still chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, the last of the old-time Democratic ward bosses, part of the big-city Irish political tradition in America.

And members from another Irish American tradition are moving to take him down: the blue-eyed Irish American crew chiefs of the FBI’s anti-corruption squads. They come from police families. They went to Catholic schools, emerging like warrior monks with a clear understanding of right and wrong.


Will Madigan be indicted? I don’t know.


I do know how he built power. I was witness to it as a boy.


My father and uncle once owned a supermarket in Madigan’s 13th Ward. My brothers and our cousins all worked there. And on the days that state, city and county paychecks came out, Boss Madigan’s political patronage army would cash those checks. They’d line up at the store’s front office, snake around the first aisle to the butcher shop, all around the store to the front door.


That line continued from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There were thousands of them. Their families voted for him and worked the precincts. I knew then that nobody could defeat him on his home turf. But it just might be that he defeated himself.


This isn’t the place for fairy tales and rainbows. This is Illinois. This is Chicago.