Rich governor, meet powerful speaker

November 11, 2018 GMT

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan is about to see two things he never has seen before. And given he’s been in the Statehouse since 1971, that’s saying something.

The first is the strength of his majority.

Democrats never have held more than 72 seats in the 118-member Illinois House, with the high-water mark coming in 1991. The magic number required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and override the governor’s veto is 71 votes.

As of Nov. 8, House Democrats are in line for 73 House seats in 2019, possibly 74 — a new record. It will be Madigan’s largest majority ever.

The second is the type of person who will occupy the governor’s office.

Madigan has worked with two governors of his own party since he was first elected House speaker in 1983: Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn. These two men were not shrewd power brokers, to say the least. Madigan could pinion both at will.


Enter billionaire Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who just spent more than $170 million to unseat Gov. Bruce Rauner. That money is a total game changer for Madigan’s Democratic Party, which traditionally has relied on government worker unions, trial lawyers and business interests who need special favors in order to fill its coffers.

So far, Madigan has brought Pritzker entirely into the fold. He knew Pritzker’s money would be a major boost for his House candidates across the state.

But what happens when Pritzker goes from candidate mode to manager mode? He will inherit a massive bill backlog, a state that’s one notch above a junk credit rating and a budget that already is out of balance by $2 billion. He will not be able to raise enough revenue to cover already-bloated spending and new promises in the short term. Something’s got to give.

Government unions, for example, might not get everything they want at every turn. These fractures will be where Pritzker’s money becomes a double-edged sword for Madigan.

Those deep pockets could provide the speaker covering fire to go against his traditional power base. But Pritzker’s money also could offer Madigan’s House members the same cover should they dare to go against the speaker.

For the first time ever in Madigan’s speakership, Democratic lawmakers could have a real choice to seek shelter elsewhere when a tough vote comes around.

One key factor in all this is what Madigan wants beyond power: legacy. It’s clearly on his mind.

The day after the polls closed, Madigan released an odd personal statement under the Democratic Party of Illinois letterhead. In it, he claims Republicans lost because they tried to make the election a referendum on Madigan, but that strategy backfired because the speaker is actually “a champion of smart economic and social policies” and has provided “real, tangible economic benefits to the people and families of this state.”

It’s completely out of touch with reality. And Democrats know that.


Recall that in 2012, a political action committee closely linked to Madigan paid for mailers attacking … Madigan. The mailers were sent in support of a Democratic challenger running against incumbent Republican state Rep. Skip Saviano. “A vote for Skip Saviano is a vote for Mike Madigan!” said one. “Democrat Speaker Mike Madigan calls the shots for Skip Saviano,” said another.

If voters actually love the speaker, Senate Democrats must not have received the memo.

Three Democratic Senate challengers ran a week’s worth of TV ads in September calling for term limits on Madigan, before the Chicago Federation of Labor demanded they be taken down. Of those three challengers, one picked up a Republican seat and another is down just 12 votes with mail-in ballots left to be counted.

In Madigan’s own chamber, Democrat Anne Stava-Murray pulled off a shocking upset in Chicago’s western suburbs against incumbent Republican state Rep. David Olsen. Stava-Murray vowed to vote against Madigan for House speaker.

Madigan remains a black eye for the Democratic Party brand in Illinois. His House members are well aware of that. But for now, they still need his protection.

Come inauguration in January, that could change.