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Commentary: Chance for reform in Illinois rests with one man

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2009 - What may be state government's darkest hour could - and should - become Mike Madigan's finest.

His unprecedented 24 years as House speaker testifies to his steely discipline, legendary work ethic, laser-like focus, keen intellect and sphinx-like mystique - all enlisted to amass and retain political power.

More than a decade ago, he eclipsed David Shanahan's dozen years of wielding the gavel in the early 20th century. But will Madigan summon his extraordinary attributes and unparalleled power in the cause of reviving a government bloodied and bowed by fiscal mismanagement and cynicism-breeding scandal?

In these crucial, concluding weeks of an already historic legislative session, will we see the Democratic statesman who helped Republican governors face less daunting, though still substantial, challenges in the 1980s and 1990s? Or will we witness the mirror-image Madigan, more captivated by political calculus than balancing the state's books?

Shortly after becoming speaker in 1983, he worked closely with Gov. Jim Thompson to resolve a budget crisis primarily caused by revenue-stalling recession. He was Gov. Jim Edgar's main legislative ally in 1997 during a push for comprehensive reform of public school funding. He has helped steer enactment of significant ethics legislation. More often than not, the 67-year-old Chicagoan has played a pivotal, progressive role in addressing major issues and making state government work.

But Madigan at times has been a fiercely partisan obstructionist, a shield for incumbents and incumbency against the winds of reform, an arrogant pulverizer of dwindling Republican ranks and a petulant, persistent punisher of those he believes have crossed him. The latter is a particularly unbecoming trait for the fundamentally decent lawmaker - a trait that seems, understandably and almost justifiably, to have intensified since he emerged as Rod Blagojevich's antagonist-in-chief.

Madigan took on the now disgraced and dislodged governor earlier and more resolutely than anyone else in the State House. In 2004, he enlisted Republicans to help him curb Blagojevich's overspending. After he and other Democrats succumbed to their partisan instincts and abetted the governor's re-election in 2006, Madigan renewed his rebellion and ultimately catalyzed the impeachment of an official who damaged Illinois in ways that will resonate well into this century. Small wonder he took note of those who backed Blagojevich during their battles - especially Senate President Emil Jones and others who reneged on commitments to him.

But he must rise to the rescue. He must put Blagojevich behind him to move the state forward. There is a new governor. Jones has been replaced by Senate President John Cullerton, who has been joined by first-year Minority Leader Christine Radogno in bringing a refreshing spirit of cooperation and diligence to that chamber. Now Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross need to bury the hatchet somewhere other than in each other.

Gov. Patrick Quinn and the people of Illinois will need legislative leaders, above all Madigan, to help shape and enact a budget that includes the combination of tax increases and spending cuts required to address the gargantuan deficit. Quinn and lawmakers also must enact sufficiently substantial reforms in campaign finance and other areas to begin rebuilding the trust of Illinoisans in their government.

Some suggest Madigan will not work productively with a governor whom his daughter may challenge in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. They predict he will drown reforms that could endanger the re-election of House Democrats and his continued stewardship. But it would be the most fitting capstone to a remarkable run if he became a full partner in rebuilding a state government he has served so admirably during other moments that deserved his singular talent.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.