News & Politics

Culture of Corruption in Illinois: Longest-Serving State House Speaker in America Losing His Grip on Power

(Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

You’ve probably never heard of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. And that’s just the way he likes it.

Madigan, nicknamed the “Velvet Hammer” has served as Democratic House speaker almost continuously since 1983. The key to his longevity has been his low profile and a political machine that’s legendary, even among Democrats. Madigan has dominated politics in Illinois for nearly 4 decades, putting the fear of God in some, schmoozing others, and always keeping the money flowing into his own — and party — coffers.

Now it appears that a huge influence-peddling scandal may finally bring down the speaker, as Democrats are abandoning Madigan. Disappointing results from the recent election are being blamed on the corruption case swirling all around the speaker, but not touching him — yet. But the federal investigation into utility giant ComEd that uncovered a scheme to give no-work jobs and internships to Madigan allies in exchange for favorable legislation is what’s convincing Democrats from Governor Pritzker on down that Madigan has to be thrown under the bus.


Madigan’s exit would bring practical concerns for Democrats, and not just in Illinois: Despite having a Democratic supermajority, the speaker’s allies in labor and in the General Assembly worry ousting Madigan now could jeopardize their control over the next redistricting process, which begins in 2021. There is also fear around being alienated from him and “The Program,” Madigan’s fundraising operation and an army of volunteers that help candidates win campaigns.

Madigan, known as the “Velvet Hammer,” could afford to lose only 13 votes in the Illinois House and hold on as speaker — a figure he hit early this week. By Thursday night, 17 had defected as he sought to defend himself (the number grew to 18 on Friday morning).

Republicans in Illinois had a field day running against Madigan’s corruption. It was perfect. It played into the notion of corrupt state politics and Democratic control of the state, which has resulted in massive financial problems and a pension crisis that threatens to bankrupt Illinois.

Elder statesman Senator Dick Durbin even turned on his friend and the chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“All across our state — and the advertising told the story — we paid a heavy price for the speaker’s chairmanship of the Democratic Party,” Durbin told WTTW on “Chicago Tonight.” “Candidates who had little or no connection with [Madigan] whatsoever were being tarred as Madigan allies who are behind corruption and so forth and so on.”

The state’s other Senator Tammy Duckworth has called on Madigan to step down. And Governor Pritzker says if Madigan can’t answer every question about the scandal to the voter’s satisfaction, he should go.

“If Speaker Madigan wants to continue in a position of enormous public trust with such a serious ethical cloud hanging over his head, then he has to at the very least be willing to stand in front of the press and the people and answer every last question to their satisfaction,” Pritzker told reporters Thursday.

Strong as his statement was, the governor didn’t call outright for Madigan’s resignation and instead gave him something of an out. Written statements, Pritzker said, “are not going to cut it. If the speaker cannot commit to that level of transparency, then the time has come for him to resign as speaker.”

Madigan has weathered his share of scandal and crisis. And I certainly wouldn’t count him out here. But Illinois voters may finally have reached a tipping point and are more willing to hold politicians accountable than ever before.

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