Pension Fight Shows Democratic Leader Differences

As lawmakers strain again this week to find a fix for the state's $97 billion pension crisis, the stalemate between House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton highlights the evolving relationship between two powerful Democratic friends who've seldom had such a prolonged disagreement on such an urgent issue.

The motivations behind Madigan and Cullerton's refusal to budge on conflicting reform plans may be complex and murky. But the standoff illustrates the contrasts in their leadership styles and what some see as Cullerton seeking a stronger position for himself and his chamber against his one-time mentor's dominance in the General Assembly.

The two Chicago Democrats, who've worked closely together since 1979, dismiss the idea of personal tension between them, portraying their differences as an honest policy dispute over the correct course for Illinois. But their inability to settle the issue has fomented surprise and suspicion in a state with a reputation for backroom deals.

"I told the two leaders, who have known each other for 34 years — they are very close friends, they are family friends —when they want to put something on my desk that's their priority, they know how to do it, " Gov. Pat Quinn said last week.

The Democrat-controlled Legislature is scheduled to address the pension crisis again Wednesday. Quinn called a special session after lawmakers adjourned two weeks ago without taking action on the state's unfunded obligation to retired employees that's grown exponentially over the years, and now costs Illinois $17 million per day to finance.

Madigan proposes unilaterally imposing pension changes on state workers, including a higher retirement age. Cullerton's rival plan would give retirees choices over benefits, which could stand a better chance of surviving an expected court challenge, thus saving at least some money — though not as much.

The Senate rejected Madigan's plan, but passed Cullerton's, which has union support. But Madigan has refused to call the Senate bill for a vote in the House, insisting that Quinn and Cullerton try harder to pass his plan in the Senate.

"I wouldn't call it a family fight," Madigan said Friday. "From the beginning of the Democratic party, there's been differences among Democrats, and I'm sure that in due time the differences will be worked out and there will be success."

Some Republicans accuse Democrats, traditional allies of state employee unions, of not truly wanting to solve the problem. But the speaker rejected that argument Friday as rhetoric.

Madigan, 71, and Cullerton, 64, are both Irish Catholic lawyers from Chicago. The speaker was first elected to the House in 1970 and has controlled it for 28 of the last 30 years. Soon after becoming majority leader in 1979, he named Cullerton his floor leader and the two developed a close relationship.

After Cullerton moved to the Senate, Madigan worked to secure his bid to be the chamber's president in 2009. Their close relationship was seen as a way to ease gridlock in Springfield, since Madigan barely had spoken with Cullerton's predecessor, Democrat Emil Jones, who was an ally of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The two also are close personally. Cullerton is godfather to Madigan's only son, Andrew. Madigan's wife, Shirley, and Cullerton's wife, Pamela, are friends. The Cullertons live close to Madigan's eldest daughter, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, making inter-family visits easy.

But a contrast in their leadership styles has long been evident.

Madigan radiates discipline and control. Intensely private, he is known to work alone and above the fray, rarely granting interviews. His third-floor Capitol office is shrouded in mystery, and he dines at the same table at the same Italian restaurant, working with a few aides or House members at a time.

Cullerton's office, by contrast, bustles with activity. Members caucus inside to talk about key issues, trickling out a few at a time through Cullerton's open office door. He is treated more casually by other lawmakers, and has been known to do impersonations of famous people.

Cullerton is known for trying to work collaboratively with interest groups and fellow senators, both Democrat and Republican. Madigan is known for his strategic control of House matters through his years of experience and formidable fundraising powers. Currently, he controls more than $2 million he can distribute, while Cullerton oversees about $100,000.

Cullerton "likes to bring parties to an agreement," said Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat. His pension proposal "is the first and only time (state) workers impacted have agreed to meaningful pension reform. ... He attempts to simultaneously do what's in the best interest of the state and what the caucus would like to do."

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and assistant majority leader under Madigan, argued that part of the problem is senators under Cullerton who bristle over the speaker's influence. Cullerton has to deal with members that "go overboard not doing things the speaker's way," Lang said. "The Senate wants to have its own identity."

But Kent Redfield, a former House staffer who teaches political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, believes Cullerton has more to gain from taking a tough stand at an opportune moment. He says Cullerton realizes his pension proposal likely has the most support in the Legislature, and that's why he's still pushing it — regardless of how he and Madigan have worked together in the past.

"Part of it is redefining those roles ... Cullerton does not want to be in a position of weakness," Redfield said. "He's got an agreement with the unions that puts him in a pretty strong position."

Uncharacteristically, Madigan and Cullerton have expressed frustration with each other in public.

Exiting the Capitol late one evening, Madigan said Cullerton's failure to push the House plan showed "lack of leadership." Cullerton, asked in an Associated Press interview about Madigan refusing to allow a vote on his bill, said he was puzzled, even though he talks with the speaker all the time.

"What's the fear of calling the other bill? I don't know. I don't know," Cullerton said.

Madigan "says he doesn't think about it. Or he doesn't want to think about it."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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