I don’t suppose anyone keeps a list of the most powerful state legislators in American history, but if someone did, Michael Madigan would be on it. Madigan’s political and parliamentary skills put him up there with New York State Sen. William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, California Assembly Speakers Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh and Willie Brown. Unlike those men, Madigan lacks a colorful nickname or a colorful personality, but he may have outdone them in the control he exerts over his state.
As a result of the remap he oversaw last year, and of spending by the Illinois Democratic Party he runs, Madigan now has a veto-proof majority in his House of Representatives: 71 Democrats and 47 Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats also have a veto-proof majority, of 40-19.
That means Madigan no longer requires the cooperation of Republicans, or even of Gov. Pat Quinn, to pass his legislative agenda. L’etat c’est Madigan. Ironically, Madigan was able to amass such power as a result of the Cutback Amendment, promoted by Quinn in 1980, which reduced the size of the House from 177 to 118 by eliminating multiple-member, multiple-party districts. That increased the power of legislative leaders, by giving them more control over their members. Madigan was named speaker of the first House elected under the Cutback Amendment, and has held the office for 28 of the last 30 years. (Quinn, it must be said, has always been longer on good intentions than political cunning.)
As the conservative Illinois Policy Institute points out:
Illinois Democrats have ownership of the state of Illinois. In the next two years they must address some big problems. Illinois Democrats own the $203 billion in unfunded pension liability. Illinois Democrats own the $9 billion in unpaid vendor bills. Illinois Democrats own 8.8 percent statewide unemployment. With a supermajority in the House and the Senate, Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton can no longer blame Illinois problems, and its absence of solutions, on a lack of Republican bipartisanship.
Madigan amassed so much influence by being smart enough to do something bigger than run the Illinois House, but also smart enough to know that no other job would offer him as much power. Madigan has been speaker 20 years longer than anyone else who held the job. Many of his predecessors used it as a stepping stone -- Paul Powell became secretary of state, Ralph Tyler Smith became senator, George Ryan became governor. Madigan could have been a congressman, but in Congress, he would be one out of 435. He could have been governor, but a governor’s power expires after eight years. As speaker, his power is endless. It’s more than endless. It’s multi-generational, having been invested in his daughter, Attorney General Lisa, who will live to achieve the offices her father passed up.
Madigan is the face of the Illinois Democratic Party. During this election, Republican legislative candidates didn’t run against nameless, faceless Democratic incumbents. They ran on the platform, “Fire Madigan!” It didn’t work. In Illinois, Michael Madigan never loses.