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Embattled former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan steps down as state Democratic Party chair

Chicago Tribune

Monday, February 22, 2021  |  Article  |  Dan Petrella

Madigan, Michael--State House, 22

Former longtime Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan resigned as chairman of the state Democratic Party on Monday, one day after anointing a 26-year-old constituent services worker to fill the legislative seat he held for a half-century.

 

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, previously the Democratic vice chair, will take over on an interim basis, the party announced late Monday.

 

Madigan’s resignation as the head of the state party, a post he’s held since 1998, completes the swift downfall that began when fellow House Democrats deposed him as speaker last month after he held the gavel for nearly four decades. He resigned his seat as state representative for the Southwest Side 22nd House District on Thursday.

 

After ward and township leaders in the district met Sunday to name his replacement, Madigan said he had “no idea” when he would make a decision about stepping down as party chairman. “I don’t feel a need to step down,” he said.

Yarbrough will be the head of the state party until the 36 members of the Democratic State Central Committee meet to choose someone to serve out the remainder of the current term, which ends after the March 2022 primary election. That meeting must take place within 30 days under state election law.

 

“I want to use this opportunity to express how honored I have been to lead Illinois Democrats through both challenging and rewarding times,” Madigan wrote Monday in an email to party members. “Over the last two decades, we’ve increased the number of women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community serving in elected office in Illinois and helped send a hometown Chicago leader to the White House.

 

“We’ve faced conservative extremism and always stood up for the hardworking women and men of Illinois. Together we’ve held steady as the ‘blue wall’ in the Midwest, held supermajorities in the legislature and passed landmark legislation that has made Illinois a leader in progressive policy.”

 

Long criticized by opponents for his control of the legislative process and party campaign funds, the 78-year-old Madigan’s firm grip on the levers of power began to loosen in 2018 when he faced a backlash over his handling of sexual harassment and intimidation within his governmental and political organizations. He was forced to cut ties with longtime aides, including his chief of staff, who also had been executive director of the state party.

 

An internal rebellion among House Democrats began growing in strength when Commonwealth Edison admitted in federal court in July that it had engaged in a yearslong bribery scheme aimed at currying favor with Madigan and agreed to pay a $200 million fine. One of Madigan’s closest confidants, former lawmaker and lobbyist Mike McClain, and several former ComEd executives and lobbyists have been indicted, though all but one have pleaded not guilty.

 

Madigan has not been charged and has repeatedly denied wrongdoing or prior knowledge of the alleged scheme.

 

But fellow Democrats blamed that baggage for the defeat of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated-rate income tax amendment and some Democratic candidates on the November ballot.

 

After the election, Pritzker joined Illinois’ two Democratic U.S. senators, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, in calling for new leadership of the state party.

 

Pritzker and Duckworth issued a joint statement Monday backing 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris to be the next party chair.

 

“As our nation moves on from the chaos of the Trump years and our state begins charting a brighter path forward under new legislative leadership, the next leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois must continue the progress we’ve made by supporting Democratic candidates who will help working families at the local, state and federal levels equally,” they said.

 

Harris could not be reached immediately Monday for comment.

 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot earlier this month named the veteran South Side alderman as her new City Council floor leader.

 

Harris was among a group of Black and Latino aldermen who were early backers of Pritzker’s 2018 campaign for governor. Her daughter, Loren Harris, worked on Duckworth’s 2016 campaign and was named director of the senator’s Chicago office in 2019.

 

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson, meanwhile, announced on social media her intention to seek to become the Democratic Party chair. She touted her credentials representing a diverse district that includes urban, suburban and rural settings, which she called “a microcosm of the state. “With democracy under siege, it’s more important than ever that we have leaders of our party that can appeal to the broad sector of our electorate that represent all 102 counties our state.”

 

 

Durbin threw his support behind Kelly, a fifth-term member of the U.S. House, who was the 2010 Democratic nominee for state treasurer and served two terms in the Illinois House. Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez in a tweet also announced her support for Kelly, who was chief of staff to former Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias from 2007 to 2011.

 

“She’s traveled to every corner of Illinois as a statewide candidate,” Durbin, a Springfield resident, said in a statement. “And she represents a district that’s urban, suburban, and rural. Her experience in Congress, the state legislature, and managing an Illinois constitutional office afford her a breadth of important experience and skill sets. I cannot think of a better person to lead Democrats moving forward in Illinois.”

 

Lightfoot on Tuesday declined to publicly choose between Harris, and Kelly, noting that she has no formal say in the matter.

“I don’t have to pick one, I’m not a state committeeman,” Lightfoot said.

 

Lightfoot said the “significant transition” gives the party leadership an opportunity to modernize the party, build a pipeline for young talent, rejuvenate young Democrats in Cook County and across the state, and use effective tools to reach people on the web.

 

“I think this really is a tremendous opportunity,” she said. “I love both Robin Kelly and Michelle Harris. They are both my friends. They have both supported me.”

 

As Madigan departs, Yarbrough praised his contributions to the party.

 

“Democrats across Illinois owe Chairman Madigan a huge debt of gratitude for the support, resources and time he’s dedicated to candidates and races at every level,” she said in a statement. “While our party enters a transition and looks to the future, I hope we don’t lose sight of the extraordinary contributions he has made.”