Former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan resigned more than a year ago, but his towering presence rocked the state’s political landscape once again Wednesday — this time in the form of racketeering charges leveled against him by a federal grand jury.
The bombshell indictment against the man who dominated Illinois power circles for nearly half a century promises to echo across political battlefields — in the heart of an election year, no less.
The accusations provided fodder for Republicans who lamented perhaps “the darkest day in Illinois history,” and yet another obstacle for Democrats who called it a “stark reminder” of the need for ethics reform after years of trying to distance themselves from the soft-spoken, hard bargaining ex-speaker known as the “Velvet Hammer.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot reacted to the news minutes after it broke in the middle of a University of Illinois Chicago news conference at UIC alongside U.S. Treasury Sec. Janet Yellen, leading to a series of uncomfortable questions in front of the visiting federal Cabinet official.
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“I’ve been saying for years now that we’ve got to root out corruption wherever it exists, and it’s why we’ve passed and I’ve signed ethics reforms in the state of Illinois,” said Pritzker, who is up for reelection in November. Government watchdog groups have roundly criticized the state’s ethics reform efforts so far as insufficient.
Madigan helped shepherd several of Pritzker’s signature pieces of legislation during the Democratic governor’s first year in office, including a massive $45 billion capital infrastructure plan and the legalization of cannabis.
The governor said Madigan’s involvement doesn’t taint those efforts, arguing the bills “got overwhelming support, sometimes bipartisan, overwhelming support.”
Pritzker’s office followed up with a written statement deeming the allegations “deplorable and a stark violation of the public’s trust. Michael Madigan must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations against Madigan, but said that U.S. Attorney John Lausch “better have a tight case, because if you’re going to take the shot, you’re not going to want to miss.”
“This is the kind of case, if it is in fact true, of such incredible significance — somebody who has really shaped Illinois politics for 40 years, dominated almost every aspect of life from a political standpoint, from a legislative standpoint,” the Logan Square Democrat said.
In Springfield, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch — the man who took up the gavel that Madigan held for most of four decades — said the indictment showed that the feds “did their job,” one that couldn’t have been handled by the investigative committee Welch chaired to look into the allegations against Madigan.
The sitting speaker said his office “has fully cooperated with the investigation and will continue to do so.”
In the other statehouse chamber where Democrats also hold a super-majority — thanks to decades of Madigan’s indomitable party organization — Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said “these are obviously disturbing allegations. I have confidence in our system of justice. Like everyone else, I will be watching to see how this unfolds.”
On the other side of the Capitol aisle, Republicans pounced on the indictment of Madigan, whom they’ve long painted as the face of Illinois corruption.
“Today may be the darkest day in Illinois history,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said. “This 22-count federal indictment against former Democrat Speaker Michael Madigan is the beginning of the power cleaning so desperately needed in Illinois government. … But this is not just an indictment against Michael Madigan. It’s an indictment against the Democrat Party of Illinois that he ran for decades.”
State Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie said the indictment “underscores why it is so important to empower a statewide grand jury on corruption — so we can finally begin to clean up our own house.”
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, who replaced Madigan as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, called the indictment “a stark reminder that elected leaders must hold themselves to the highest ethical standards” — and she called on him to resign from his post as state central committeeperson for the 3rd Congressional District.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who chairs the county Democratic Party, also called on Madigan to give up his separate 13th Ward committee post, calling it “a shameful day for Illinois politics.”
“Our political organizations should not double as criminal enterprises,” she said in a statement.
House Democrats who revolted against Madigan in 2021 when he tried to hold onto his speaker gavel called the indictment “a watershed moment for our state that reminds us of the work ahead, as the former speaker’s case makes its way through the legal system.”
“We knew that our chamber, our state and our party deserve better leadership, and the unfolding corruption scandal would only continue to erode public confidence in our work,” North Side state Rep. Kelly Cassidy said. “This is a sad day, a reminder of a terrible abuse of power that undermined our constituents’ faith in our government.”
State Rep. Ann William, who challenged Madigan for speaker, said in a statement that “accountability and integrity should be at the foundation of public service. Unfortunately, this was lost in the pursuit of personal gain and political power. Collaboration and inclusion took a back seat to a culture of cronyism and control.”
Candidates vying to take on Pritzker as the Republican nominee for governor piled on the incumbent for his ties to Madigan.
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin called the ex-speaker’s tenure a “destructive 40-year reign” in which Pritzker “stood by enabling Madigan with millions in campaign contributions.”
State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, accused Pritzker of being “Mike Madigan’s handpicked gubernatorial candidate.” Former state Sen. Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, said Pritzker “bowed down and kissed Madigan’s ring when it was advantageous for him. No amount of revisionist history gives the governor the right to clutch his pearls now.”
Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine called the indictment “another black eye for the state of Illinois and the Illinois Democratic Party,” while downstate venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan blasted Madigan as “the very face of Illinois corruption.”
Even disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich weighed in with a video posted to Twitter, though his words for Madigan weren’t as harsh.
“I don’t wish this on even my worst political enemy, and Michael Madigan has been my worst political enemy.”