In last month’s election, Illinois voters got to choose a long list of representatives: governor, U.S. senator, congressmen, state representatives and senators and more. But just a mere handful of us got to vote (or not vote) for arguably the most powerful pol in the state — House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Madigan is the longest-serving speaker in Illinois history, having served in that position for 29 of the last 31 years. As both speaker and chairman of the state Democratic Party, he runs the House with an iron fist.
I got a personal view of his power about 15 years ago when I was executive director of the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority. I had a bill that I needed to get passed through the state legislature so I drafted the bill and sought out sponsors.
Madigan was speaker at the time and one of our local Democrats agreed to sponsor the bill in the House. He called one day and asked me to come to Springfield to testify in a committee hearing. On the appointed day we took our seats in the audience, waiting for our bill to come up on the agenda.
Immediately before the SWIDA bill was a bill dealing with a particular development project in the Chicago area. People offered testimony. Representatives asked questions. Finally, the chairman called for a vote. One by one the committee secretary called the roll. One voted aye; another nay. The chairman voted yes early on.
As the secretary neared the bottom of the list, a member voted no. Unlike the other votes that went pretty much without notice, this time there was a discernible pause in the roll call and you could almost feel the audience inhale in unison. I leaned over to my sponsor and asked, “What’s going on?”
“This is the speaker’s bill,” he responded, “and that guy was supposed to vote yes.”
After a moment, the secretary went on with the roll call without any further delays or theatrics. She then announced the tally: 4 aye, 5 nay; the motion failed. At that time, the chairman, a Democrat, said, “Madam secretary, I would like to change my vote from aye to nay.” And so it was recorded, changing the final tally to 3 aye and 6 nay. Obviously, the bill still failed.
Once again, I leaned over and whispered to my bill sponsor, “What’s going on?”
“You can only call for a revote if you voted in the majority,” he answered. “Now watch this.”
The chairman announced a five-minute recess, called over one of the pages, scribbled out a note, handed it to the page and sent him on his way.
A few minutes later, the page returned, carrying a note from Madigan with a man in tow. The chairman took the note, opened it, read it, and announced that the committee hearing was now back in session.
He then immediately announced that the representative who had shocked the committee and audience with his no vote was now off the committee and was being replaced with the one who had just entered with the page. The chairman promptly called for a revote on the previous question. This time, everyone voted as expected and the bill was passed out of the committee by a new vote of 5 to 4.
As the line goes in Brian De Palma’s film, “The Untouchables”: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!”
With the Republican tide rolling strong over the nation in last month’s election, I was curious to see how Madigan fared in his district. He had just squeaked by in 2012 with 76 percent of the vote — maybe it tightened up. This time Madigan ran unopposed.
Governor-elect Bruce Rauner ran as a staunch supporter of term limits and Mike Madigan is a poster child for that initiative if anyone is. But I don’t think term limits is the answer. Missouri has had term limits since 1992 and it hasn’t done them any good. By the time a legislator has learned the ropes, it’s time to go. Meanwhile, lobbyists have a field day with the uninformed and inexperienced newbies. And it hardly prevents abuse and chicanery. A few years ago the Missouri House speaker set up a consulting firm on the side. Legislators then paid him a consulting fee to help their bills get passed. Nice work if you can get it!
I think the real problem lies in the gerrymandered districts. When Democrats are in control after the census, they stack the deck in their favor. Republicans do, too. I’m sure there are so many Democrats in Madigan’s district that Santa Claus could run against him and not get more than 25 percent of the vote.
We would all be better off if redistricting was removed from the political process and balanced, competitive districts were drawn by computer so that every election was a true test of ideas. If someone does such a good job under those circumstances that the voters keep returning him to office, so be it.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal.