The previously unimaginable showdown looming over leadership of the Illinois House of Representatives, occasioned by scandal around the once-invincible Speaker Michael Madigan, recalls a drawn-out debacle 45 years ago that burned through two weeks and 93 votes before lawmakers settled on a surprise compromise.
With the inauguration of a new General Assembly on Wednesday, Madigan, the longest-serving leader of any legislative body in U.S. history, will seek an unparalleled 19th term as speaker, a vote that’s been a lock for three decades. But last summer, the Democrat was identified in a Justice Department investigation as the beneficiary of a years-long bribery venture by ComEd. It has thus far yielded a $200 million fine on the utility giant, a ComEd executive’s guilty plea and indictments of four others, including Madigan’s closest confidante.
Madigan has not been charged with a crime and has denied wrongdoing. But after several years of declining faith in the 78-year-old Madigan’s leadership, calls have intensified for his ouster. At last count, 19 House Democrats remarkably have declared they will not support his retention this week, which also marks the 50th anniversary of his first House inauguration.
That ostensibly leaves Madigan six votes shy of the 60 he needs to reclaim the gavel, given a 73-45 Democratic majority. But others likely oppose the Chicago Democrat who have not publicly said so.
Madigan was a rising star in January 1975 following a Watergate-era mid-term sweep, landing Democrats 101 seats to the Republicans’ 76 in what was then a larger House. The melee that was the session’s opening act ended with an unlikely Republican vote for back-bencher William Redmond of DuPage County. It came from freshman Rep. Lee Daniels of Elmhurst, who two decades later became the only person to interrupt Madigan’s three decades at the helm, serving as speaker with a fleeting GOP majority from 1995-97.
The previous front-runner, southern Illinois powerhouse Rep. Clyde Choate, had the endorsement of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Not surprisingly, he drew the opposition of Gov. Dan Walker, a Democrat but self-styled reformer whose 1972 election was a victory over Daley’s Democratic machine.
“Walker said, ’I want ABC — Anybody but Clyde,” said Aaron Jaffe, a Democrat from Skokie who entered the House with Madigan in 1971, leaving in 1985 to become a Cook County circuit judge. Walker, who questioned Choate’s honesty, favored Rep. Gerald Bradley of Bloomington.
Jaffe, who often clashed with Daley but was just as wary of Walker’s machinations, believed Choate would be strong enough to stand up to both when necessary.
Needing 89 votes to mount the dais, the Jan. 8 opening vote gave Choate 56 to Bradley’s 11. In all, 11 members tallied votes, including then-Rep. Harold Washington, who in 1983 became Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Through ballot after ballot, Choate was implacable, as relentless as in 1944 when he single-handedly destroyed a tank and turned back a Nazi advance in France, earning the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman. He wouldn’t yield even after Daley and Walker agreed on Redmond as a compromise.
“Clyde Choate stayed the course, he turned the mayor down when the mayor asked him to get out,” said George Ryan, then a second-term Republican from Kankakee who would succeed Redmond as speaker in 1981 and served as governor from 1999-2003. Choate, Ryan said, believed he had paid his dues and had earned the job.
Daley’s switch, which Ryan recalled prompted the House collectively to wonder, “’Who’s Bill Redmond? Where the hell did he come from?” materialized on the 39th ballot, when Redmond got 71 votes and Choate fell to 21. But there was a long way to go.
Jaffe found himself in a group akin to today’s 19 dissenters, the “Embattled 17” (he has a whimsical plaque to prove it) who stuck with Choate until the end. Redmond prevailed on Jan. 21 with the help of six Republicans in addition to Daniels, who declined an interview. The acrimony between the two parties in today’s House — driven almost exclusively by the GOP’s disdain for Madigan — makes that scenario unlikely this time.
Madigan has three declared opponents: Reps. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, Kathleen Willis of Addison and Ann Williams of Chicago. Opponents of Madigan’s retention hope to settle matters in a private caucus before a public head count.
“This doesn’t have to be drawn out and end up going to the floor,” said Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago member of the 19 dissenters. “Hopefully, it resolves itself in caucus. That involves folks recognizing that he (Madigan) simply doesn’t have the votes.”
But if, like Choate, Madigan takes the matter to the floor without sufficient votes, a repeat is in store..
“There will be some people that will always vote for for the current speaker,” Kifowit said. “And I believe those people will want to be heard on the House floor.”
Some will not count out the “velvet hammer,” as the speaker has come to be known.
“Madigan doesn’t take Step 2 until he practices Step 1 four times,” Jaffe said. “He’s a well thought-out guy.”
Ryan, who as governor clashed and compromised with the speaker, said, “I’ll put my money on Madigan.”