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Southern IL Lawmakers Face Uncertain Future After Madigan Ouster

Former House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) speaks with reporters in July 2017. Rep. Chris Welch (D-Hillside) became the new house speaker after Madigan failed to get enough votes to retain the gavel.
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois
Former House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) speaks with reporters in July 2017. Rep. Chris Welch (D-Hillside) became the new house speaker after Madigan failed to get enough votes to retain the gavel.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

To southern Illinois Democratic lawmakers, Speaker Michael Madigan was the omnipresent benefactor — the force behind nearly every successful piece of legislation or election.

To downstate Republicans, he embodied the worst of Chicago politics. He was the ruthless architect of the pension crisis, higher taxes and redistricting that pushed conservatives to the margins. He left the speakership as “Public Official A,” the unnamed figure in the federal corruption investigationthat led to his downfall in January.

For nearly every legislator who served in Springfield during the 40 years he held the gavel, Madigan was the man to see, and the boss who could leave you out in the cold, cut off from campaign money, the minute you crossed him. There’s a new speaker, Democrat Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, but there will never be another Madigan.

“When people say he ran the show, there is no possible way to say that in a strong enough way,” said Republican state Sen. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro, who served in Madigan’s House. “No bill moved without his approval. No committee functioned without his stamp of approval. He didn’t just turn off the spigot on your bills. He’d turn off the spigot on your campaign money.”

Madigan, 79, wielded power by taking care of his people. He curried favor with Democrats across the state through masterful dealmaking and kept them loyal with cash. Once they were in office and needed something, he helped.

Madigan was not an innovator, but he took lawmakers’ ideas and needs and turned them into policy, said Sharon Harris-Johnson, former Jackson County treasurer long involved in Democratic campaigns. Year after year, he delivered a budget that funded essential social services for downstate residents and economic drivers such as Southern Illinois University.

Madigan’s reach extended to the other chamber, said former Democratic state Sen. Kenneth Buzbee of Anna.

“If I wanted something done for my district and if I needed help on it, I could go to the (Senate) leader,” Buzbee said, “and if it was something that was really really big, why (the leader) then would get in touch with Madigan and say, ‘We need this.’ And we’d get it.”

The expectations went both ways. If the party needed a vote, Buzbee said, he and other southern Illinois lawmakers would return Madigan’s favor.

It was a classic backscratching style of lawmaking where Madigan could solidify a huge power base by satisfying a handful of requests, said Kevin Anderson, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University who specializes in African American politics.

“If the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus came to him and say, ‘Hey, we need more funding for schools,’” Anderson said, “he knew that if he took that on, it was sort of a shorthand way to ensure a solid bloc of support without having to go and literally shake every hand and listen to every minute problem.”

Outdated governing

Madigan, who still has his House seat though there’s speculation about resignation, has denied any wrongdoing in the federal bribery investigation involving Illinois’ largest electric utility, Commonwealth Edison, or ComEd. The probe has implicated confidants and members of his inner circle, and the utility has agreed to pay a $200 million fine for its role in the scheme to influence the legislature.

But even before the scandal broke, Madigan’s style of governance was nearing its sunset. Despite dumping millions into incumbent campaigns, the speaker had lost his grip on growing swaths of southern Illinois.

He was most effective when he maneuvered among the leaders of traditional cultural and racial blocs of voters. In predominately Black communities like East St. Louis, for example, voters elected Democrats to negotiate on behalf of the community, Anderson said. All Madigan had to do was reach a deal with the leader and it would ensure a voter base.

“The flaw in that of course is that an elected official may not represent all of the strands of thought and political ideologies that exist,” Anderson said.

The resurgent progressive moment sparked by George Floyd’s death exposed fissures that led to the ousting of longtime Democratic congressional leaders like Lacy Clay of Missouri and the rise of far left-leaning Democrats such as Cori Bush. Once-reliable groups of voters were no longer relying on the status quo.

“You say, ‘OK, we’ve been electing the same people for 20 or 30 years. They’re either not solving the problem or solving it very, very slowly and now our dissent is public,’” Anderson said.

The same goes for increasingly conservative metro-east voters. When two Republican state representatives booted Democratic incumbents in November, party leaders blamed Madigan.

Future under Speaker Welch

Madigan is out as speaker, but Downstate Republicans worry that he will continue to be a player behind the scenes as the region suffers from heartache caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madigan remains boss of the Illinois Democratic Party, in control of millions in campaign money. The Democratic Majority fund had nearly $900,000 and the Democratic Party of Illinois had $1.9 million on hand at the end of 2020.

Yet there’s cautious optimism among lawmakers who represent an increasingly conservative southern Illinois that Welch, new Democratic House speaker, is willing to work with Republicans to address regional issues. Outdated and overworked state systems have made it difficult to access unemployment benefits, financial assistance for businesses and firearm ownership cards among a people passionate about their guns.

“He can be a very reasonable guy and you can talk to him,” Bryant said. “So, I don’t think that he’ll, especially not in his first couple of years, I don’t think he’ll hold the velvet hammer the same way that Speaker Madigan did,” a reference to the nickname Madigan earned for his discreet but forceful rule over Illinois lawmaking.

But Bryant adds she is skeptical of Welch because of a 2002 police report that he slammed an ex-girlfriend’s head into a countertop. The woman declined to press charges. Welch, 50, says the dispute is a thing of the past, but that’s not good enough for Bryant, who faced beatings from her stepfather as a child. When she was 9 years old, Bryant’s mother shot and killed him to protect her from an episode of potentially deadly abuse.

“I’m glad I’m not in the House anymore because (Welch’s) history makes me uncomfortable,” she said.

Republicans such as state Rep. David Friess of Red Bud are also dubious about Welch’s recent olive branch to the GOP and to Minority House Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. Welch says he plans to keep “an open line of communication” with Durkin, who led an effort to remove Madigan from office last year, Capitol News Illinois reported.

“I’m curious to see whether or not the joke that he’s not speaker in name but he’s going to be speaker behind the scenes will come true,” Friess said. “I hope, given the fact that he could not muster up the support in his own caucus, that he moves on and that he lets Speaker Welch act as speaker on his own.”

If southern Illinois Republicans want to address worries about business and guns back home, they’re going to have to work with the Democratic supermajority in Springfield, said John Jackson, a visiting political professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale.

“Southern Illinois legislators have to got change their tactics or it’s just not going to be in the cards,” Jackson said. “They have to learn to build coalitions and work with the realities of Illinois politics.”

But it’s not clear when the House will be able to get back to work.

It is expected to convene on Feb. 10, but only to adopt rules such as allowing remote committee meetings. It could be April before any substantial work is done, Capitol News Illinois reported.

The digital format of committee hearings concerns downstate Republicans who need to form relationships with Democrats to address issues important among southern Illinoisans.

Effective communication between parties was important when Democrats were trying to pass legislation that would allow for casinos in the Chicago area, Bryant said. She and Republican state Rep. Dave Severin were able to secure the same rules for a proposed casino in southern Illinois’ Williamson county by working with Democratic state Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea, Bryant said.

Mutually beneficial relationships are difficult to form in a pandemic.

“A Zoom call is only worth so much,” Friess said. “You see somebody, you hear somebody, but half the time you get the garbled communication. You lose a lot of the personal side of it.”

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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