October 30, 2018


The Late Great State of Illinois (ANDREW FERGUSON, 10/30/18, Weekly Standard)

The most important man in this battle is offstage--and indeed remains anonymous even to many Illinois voters. "Michael Madigan is the single most powerful state legislator in the country," says Mooney, the UIC political scientist. Madigan is one of the last surviving protégés of Richard J. Daley, the Chicago mayor who before his death in 1976 perfected the most enduring Democratic machine in American politics. (His son Richard M. Daley went on to rule Chicago for another 20 years starting a decade after his father's death.) Madigan has represented his district on Chicago's southwest side since 1971. With a two year interregnum in the 1990s, he has been speaker of the Illinois house for nearly 40 years. He is both the shaper and the embodiment of the way of politics that has brought Illinois to the brink.

Other Midwestern states, for better and worse, have a political culture at least partly under sway of an ideological tendency. Wisconsin, not the Land of Lincoln, was the birthplace of the Republican party and home to great progressives like Robert La Follette. Southern Indiana was the setting for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Iowa's politics has always been infused with Christian piety. Illinois has none of this--what it has in their place, what it has that all its neighbors lack, is an urban powerhouse at the center of its political force field. The real impress on Illinois politics has been the ethnic machine of Chicago, transplanted into Springfield and spreading from there to all corners of the state.

And ideology has nothing to do with it. Madigan has moved with the direction of his party. He began his career, for instance, when Catholic politicians like him understood abortion to be murder, and he's just as comfortable today with its status as the preeminent sacrament of feminist individualism. The purpose of a machine, as Mooney points out, is the allocation among friends of the spoils of power: the jobs, contracts, services, and perquisites that government affords. "It's a very practical mindset," Mooney says. "It's all about ends and not means. And that kind of thinking doesn't really require any one person to take responsibility for long-term planning of the government's direction."

Madigan, by all accounts, is fiercely intelligent. When the legislature is in session he always eats dinner in the same seat at the same Springfield restaurant. Lunch is an apple, sometimes two, at his desk, and in meetings he seldom speaks: The signal that the meeting is over is when he starts eating the apple, according to pols who have experienced the brushoff. He doesn't use email and seldom a cell phone, preferring communication face to face. When he takes questions from the press it is considered a historic occasion. One veteran Springfield reporter said the other day he had never interviewed Madigan, but he did have fond memories of a Madigan press conference back in . . . 2004. "He must have spoken for 45 minutes!" the reporter said.

Madigan's power is enforced quietly and without pity. Under house rules, all legislative staff report to the leader. All perks from office space to parking slots flow through his office. He has an active program of internships and apprenticeships, bringing in recruits from all over the state. "It's like a training program for politicians," says Mooney. Most important, he is not only the house majority leader, he is chairman of the state party. Every dollar of party campaign funding is under his control. Over the years a dozen wayward Democrats who crossed him on important votes have found themselves suddenly faced with primary challengers, well-funded and usually victorious. And every other Democratic officeholder knows it could happen to them.

"There's one common denominator in Springfield over the last 40 years as the state has gotten deeper in trouble," Ardis says. "And that's Madigan." Indeed, Madigan was present at what Adam Schuster calls the "original sin" of Illinois government finance--he was a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1970 when a provision was inserted into the new state constitution that state pensions, once enacted by the legislature, could never be reduced. A cascade of political folly ensued, at the hands of Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1990, a Republican governor signed a provision that guaranteed increases in state pensions at a compounded rate. Increases have been regular and untouchable ever since, thanks to Madigan and his colleagues, with the resulting horror stories that fill the state's newspapers--like the retired teacher from the Chicago suburbs with a $452,000 pension payout. Eighty percent of the state's last tax increase went to the pension system.

Sooner or later, a political machine becomes its own object: The purpose of the machine is to keep the machine alive. This is the evolutionary stage that the Chicago machine, downstate version, has reached over Madigan's long reign.

Posted by at October 30, 2018 4:25 AM