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Berg: Madigan makes history as Illinois bleeds




By Austin Berg - 

Illinois’ 100th General Assembly began with a whimper.

That was the sound of House Democrats casting their votes for the most hated politician in the state, Mike Madigan, on the floor of the Sangamon Auditorium on January 11.

Despite cries across Illinois to change course, House Democrats elected to defend the Cook County property tax lawyer at the expense of their own constituents. They gifted Madigan the House speakership for the 17th time on a straight party line vote. House Republicans voted for state Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge.

In a hopeful wrinkle, Highwood Democrat Scott Drury cast a “present” vote. This is the first time a Democrat has voted present for the speaker in 30 years.

On one hand, sadly, this result is not at all surprising. Madigan has held the speakership for 32 of the past 34 years. Come the end of his term in 2019, he will be the longest-serving House speaker of any state in modern U.S. history.

No American will have led a state legislative body for longer.

To put that in context, three Chicago Democrats who voted for Madigan on Wednesday – state Reps. Will Guzzardi, Christian Mitchell and Marcus C. Evans – were not alive when Madigan first became speaker in 1983. 

But, on the other hand, Illinoisans should be flabbergasted.

"You'll see a man who works seven days a week to get the job done without putting the focus on himself," state Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, said after seconding the nomination for Madigan as speaker.

When nearly two-thirds of voters disapprove of the speaker, according to polling from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, how could so many lawmakers give the man ultimate power over the House? These representatives aren’t supposed to work for the speaker. They’re supposed to work for the rest of us.

And it is ultimate power. An Illinois Policy Institute report surveying all 50 states revealed that Illinois grants more control to its House speaker than anywhere else in the country.

Madigan decides which bills receive a public hearing. Madigan decides who chairs committees and receives the $10,000 stipends that go with them. Madigan decides who votes in committees. And Madigan decides when bills are called before the full House.

That’s not democracy. That’s a dictatorship.

One-man rule of the General Assembly has crippled Illinois. Madigan’s has not been a long and prosperous reign for Illinoisans. 

Under his watchful eye, the Land of Lincoln has slid further into financial decay and slowly become a desert of economic opportunity. It is now the former home of millions who have fled for other states, seeking better lives.

Yet, every two years, about 22,000 voters from his small Chicago district send Madigan to the Statehouse. And then House Democrats make him king.

Because of enormous public pressure, lawmakers in the run-up to the vote faced unprecedented questioning about their vote for speaker. Many dodged criticism by framing the vote as one between a Democrat and a Republican, Durkin.

That argument falls flat. If Democrats really wanted leadership change, it would have required only one brave lawmaker to accept a nomination and another to second it. Just a lone Democrat out of the 66 not named Mike Madigan.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, offered a slightly different justification for her vote. But it’s just as concerning.

“I have a good working relationship with Leader Durkin,” she wrote in an email to constituents defending her vote for the speaker, “but to put him in charge of the House would effectively put Governor Rauner in the driver’s seat.”

Cassidy points to the problem of the speakership under Madigan: If one Republican could turn a Democrat-majority House into the governor’s lapdog, the speaker’s role has become far too powerful.

A vote for Madigan has nothing to do with ideals. It has everything to do with power. And the speaker still holds all the cards.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at [email protected].


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