Power and politics

Ray Long's new book chronicles a House speaker's rise. And the beginning of his fall.

click to enlarge Power and politics
The House that Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer, by Ray Long. 304 pages, $29.95. University of Illinois Press, publication date March 22, 2022.

My first in-person encounter with House Speaker Michael Madigan occurred in 1998, when I was a Copley News Service reporting intern covering a news conference of his at the Capitol.

I don't recall the topic, but I do remember how he spoke so calmly and softly, you had to lean toward the podium to make sure you caught every word. There were his icy stares and smirks, depending on his assessment of a reporter's question. And then there was his efficient and measured use of language – he never blathered on or raised his voice like many politicians with access to a microphone.

It was my first exposure to the "Madigan Mystique."

The rise and – as we've read in detail over recent weeks – dramatic fall of the mystique is thoroughly chronicled in a new book, The House That Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois' Velvet Hammer, University of Illinois Press, by Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Ray Long.

Pulling together decades of his reporting – as well as previous work from Tribune colleagues and other journalists and experts who cover and study Illinois government – Long provides a greatest hits collection of Madigan's career-long quest to amass political power, Democratic seats in the House and legislative wins.

We get a recounting of only-in-Illinois stories such as how disabling the clock in the Madigan-led House chamber on June 30, 1988, allowed lawmakers to officially, but not actually, beat a midnight deadline to approve a new stadium plan to stop the Chicago White Sox from moving to Florida.

Using House transcripts and a recording of WMAQ-AM's Charlie McBarron's play-by-play of the action, Long takes us back to the chaotic House chamber where Democrat Madigan and Republican Gov. Jim Thompson roamed the floor convincing members to vote for the legislation that gave us what's known today as Guaranteed Rate Field on Chicago's South Side.

We also get glimpses of a younger and more outspoken Madigan that contrasts the stoic, confident, unflappable "Velvet Hammer" I first saw in 1998.

As we saw this past year, legislative redistricting spikes the emotional temperature at the Statehouse, especially among those in the minority party. In 1981, Madigan led the minority party while Republican George Ryan was House speaker.

Adding to the conflict, legislators needed to draw a map that implemented the "cutback amendment," which reduced the size of the House from 177 to 118 members.

Using language that would fit right into a political debate happening today on Facebook, Madigan, then 39, called the Republicans' effort to slam through GOP-friendly boundaries "reminiscent of tactics used by the Nazis in Germany and by dictatorial regimes all over the world."

He said the redistricting proceedings in the House "makes us all look like a pack of idiots." To top it off, Madigan told his foes there would be a "day of reckoning," "your time is coming" and "you will regret it."

I won't spoil how the issue was resolved, but the fact that Madigan began his record-setting reign as House Speaker in 1983 will give you a hint.

As we all know, Madigan's winning didn't last. A section of the book titled "Cracks in the System" gets into the #MeToo movement at the Capitol that took down men in Madigan's inner circle and raised questions about Madigan's handling of sexual harassment allegations. It also covers the tale of Madigan's organization taking an ethically questionable but not illegal sledgehammer (figurately speaking) to an unknown and poorly funded candidate who dared to run against the speaker for his House seat.

The book concludes with Madigan's thought-we'd-never-see-it fall from the speakership in January 2021. His support among House Democrats to remain speaker eroded after Commonwealth Edison admitted the previous summer that it gave jobs and contracts to Madigan political associates as the House considered ComEd-friendly legislation.

When the book went to press, Madigan hadn't been charged with wrongdoing. Of course, that changed March 2 when federal prosecutors handed down a 22-count indictment accusing Madigan of orchestrating an "enterprise" that used his roles as House speaker, state Democratic Party chairman, 13th Ward committeeman and a property tax appeals lawyer to reward himself and associates with money and jobs.

Madigan denies the allegations, saying "the government is attempting to criminalize a routine constituent service: job recommendations. That is not illegal, and these other charges are equally unfounded."

This month's developments likely mean a second edition of Long's book will come out once Madigan's legal fate is determined. But with the chapters assembled so far, readers get a comprehensive look at a style of power and politics we may never see again.

Jason Piscia is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. He previously worked for 21 years as a reporter and editor at the State Journal-Register.

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