**This is an updated version of a Wirepoints article written when the ComEd scandal broke.**
By: Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner
House Speaker Mike Madigan’s iron grip on Illinois could be nearing an end. His ability to direct patronage, laws and the future of this state is in jeopardy. Recent votes in the House show Madigan is still lacking nine votes to be reelected Speaker.
On Monday, Madigan announced a suspension of his reelection campaign for Speaker – though he hasn’t withdrawn. That’s a risky move. Madigan is gambling Illinois Democrats won’t unite behind a different candidate, but if they do, he’s finished.
While that’s a cause for celebration, the party should be brief. Depriving Madigan of power is one thing, but unwinding the infrastructure he’s built over three decades is another. That’s the real challenge.
Wirepoints isn’t referring to the ComEd patronage scandal being investigated by the FBI, but the legally corrupt system Madigan has constructed to maintain power. The real machine is the relationship between the statehouse and the public sector unions, the cost of which has impoverished and chased out ordinary residents, transformed the state into a fiscal basketcase and brought it to the brink of junk.
The machine is made up of thousands of government entities interconnected by collective bargaining laws that grant Illinois unions more power than nearly every other state in the nation. Of course, it wouldn’t be a patronage system without “payoffs.” Illinois doles out some of the nation’s most generous pensions and benefits and then protects them constitutionally. It’s a system that’s self-contained, self-perpetuating and virtually unreformable.
That becomes obvious when you understand just how much control Illinois’ Speaker of the House has amassed over the decades. In Madigan’s rules: How Illinois gives its House speaker power to manipulate and control the legislative process, Joe Tabor and I discovered that no other state grants as much power to its legislative head as Illinois grants to Madigan.
“[Illinois’ House] rules allow Madigan to influence the makeup of legislative committees, how lawmakers vote, and when, if ever, bills get voted on. But the most obstructive rule of all keeps bills – even those with popular support – from ever seeing the light of day. Madigan, and not the General Assembly, has the power to decide what has the chance to become law.”
Madigan built up his system over 30 years and its tentacles have spread to every single city and government entity in the state. It’s deep and wide enough that a new leader can take over and everything will continue, same as it ever was. Plug and play.
Not that a new leader will be as adept as Madigan, but the power will still be there. And so will the infrastructure.
Illinois’ 7,000 units of local government – the most in the country – means tens of thousands of top bureaucrats will continue the fight to preserve what power and money the system gives them. Hundreds of thousands of local workers will still serve as the political distribution arm for the machine. Park districts, school districts, library districts and townships will remain boosters of Get-Out-the-Vote initiatives, supporters of tax hike referendums and promoters of the machine’s bullet points.
Payoffs for their loyalty will continue via some of the most union-friendly collective bargaining rules in the country. In Illinois, if teachers don’t like a contract, they can strike. If public safety workers don’t like the terms they’ve been given, they can force arbitration. The simple threat of either is often enough to get their way. Exhibit A is the Chicago Teachers Union and how it rolled both Mayors Lori Lightfoot and Rahm Emanuel.
And whatever benefits the unions extract will remain ironclad. The Illinois Constitution’s pension protection clause ensures retirement benefits – for both pensions and retiree health – are nearly impossible to unwind. Prevailing wage laws will guarantee compensation at a level the private sector can’t compete with. Long-term contracts will continue to lock in raises no matter the financial reality governments face.
For sure there’s much more that perpetuates Illinois’ legal corruption. Control of the courts. Control of the legislative map. Denial of popular reforms like term limits and ethics laws. All those will remain in place even if Madigan is kicked out of the Speakership.
The irony of it all is that Illinois politicians will celebrate Madigan’s removal as some great victory over the machine, but don’t look for them to get rid of the infrastructure he’s built. It’s just too valuable to dismantle.
Read more here about Madigan and the Illinois machine: