In the late spring of this year, as new political candidates were sprouting like daffodils, so were the ambitions of Lisa Madigan. With the election season starting to heat up, the 47-year-old Illinois attorney general privately told her top supporters that she was “95 percent” sure she’d be challenging the earnest but ineffectual governor Pat Quinn for his job in the March 2014 Democratic primary.
Madigan had clearly been mulling the move for some time. She had been stockpiling campaign contributions: $4.8 million worth, nearly a third of it raised in the first half of 2013. And she was lining up future commitments among the sharpest political minds around, according to several people familiar with the campaign’s outreach. Polls pegged her as the clear front-runner, with a commanding lead (2 to 1, in one poll) over Quinn, as well as over any of the four likely Republican nominees in next fall’s general election. The Madigan camp had even started planning a big announcement, according to a campaign insider.
There was only one not-so-teensy-weensy problem: Could she be governor of Illinois if her father, Michael Madigan, remained speaker of its House of Representatives? While not expressly prohibited by law, such a situation would be unprecedented. Not to mention the fact that the obvious familial conflict of interest would serve as catnip to political reporters nationwide, to whom “corruption” follows “Illinois” as surely as discounts follow Christmas.
Privately, Lisa was concerned. She and her campaign treasurer, Gina Natale, began quietly calling some big donors, asking if they found it problematic for one Madigan to be governor while the other was speaker. (Yes, say two people who were called and who do not wish to be identified because they do not want to anger Lisa—or her father. But neither said that it would be a campaign ender for her, either. With Quinn’s public approval numbers in the toilet, the field of Republicans fairly weak, and an electorate well used to political nepotism, they felt she could overcome the issue.)
Publicly, Lisa twisted herself into extraordinary knots to deal with the daddy question. First she told reporters that her father’s job status didn’t matter. Then she suggested that he would not be required to step down if she were elected governor. She sidestepped questions about whether he should.
By early July, the question settled itself. When a huge patronage scandal erupted at Metra, the transit agency’s CEO, Alex Clifford, claimed that he was forced out for refusing patronage requests made by Michael Madigan and others. Clifford received a $700,000-plus severance package—nearly triple his pay—which one Metra board member referred to as “hush money.” The press crucified the speaker, who, as usual, remained tightlipped and seemingly unperturbed.
On July 15, Lisa Madigan issued a terse statement that she would run not for governor but for a fourth term as attorney general. “I feel strongly that the state would not be well served by having a governor and speaker of the House from the same family,” the statement went, “and [I] have never planned to run for governor if that would be the case.”
Her wording shocked the political chatterati, who discerned bitterness between the lines. The Tribune editorial board said that she “poked a stick in her father’s eye.” Rich Miller, who writes the popular political blog Capitol Fax, characterized the statement as “throwing [her father] under the bus.”
The speaker didn’t comment on Lisa’s decision until a few weeks later, after a gaggle of reporters cornered him outside the Union League Club of Chicago, where he had just delivered a speech. The elder Madigan, who famously picks his words with great caution, claimed that his daughter knew all along he had no intention of stepping down. “Lisa and I had spoken about that on several occasions,” he said, “and she knew very well that I did not plan to retire. She knew what my position was. She knew.”
Then why, reporters wanted to know, had she considered running? Madigan shot back, “Ask her.”
That directive proved unhelpful. Representatives for Lisa Madigan declined repeated interview requests; so did those for Michael Madigan. (Sources for this story included more than two dozen current and former state legislators, other elected officials, political operatives, lobbyists, and academics—both Democrats and Republicans, both critics and supporters.)
To observers, one of the most perplexing things about the sudden lack of Madigan family harmony is that no one has been a bigger supporter of Lisa’s career than her father. And no one has more power to help her. For in Illinois, Michael Madigan—No. 2 on this magazine’s annual list of the most powerful Chicagoans, behind only Mayor Rahm Emanuel—is as close to a king as it gets. He is the longest-serving House speaker in Illinois history (29 years). Next spring he’ll take the record as the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history.
After 43 years in elected politics—and with his daughter in her political prime, the governorship all but hers for the taking—the silver-templed septuagenarian could easily have stepped aside. He could have helped propel Lisa into office and then headed for the sidelines. In the process, he might have transformed his image from that of a mysterious, old-school, SOB political boss to that of something much grander: the builder of an enduring political dynasty.
But no. Michael Madigan appears to be as unwilling to give up his gavel as the late Charlton Heston was to surrender his guns. “That man is not stepping down until (a) he’s damn well ready or (b) he’s carried out in a pine box,” says one Chicago Democrat who, like most others interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous rather than risk alienating the speaker.
Madigan’s power base springs from an unlikely spot: the Clearing neighborhood of the 13th Ward on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side. The L-shaped ward, which sits just north of the border of suburban Bedford Park and wraps around Midway Airport, is part of the city’s bungalow belt, peppered with sturdy red- and yellow-brick homes with gabled dormers, tidy lawns, and spotless alleyways.
Born in 1942, Michael Madigan grew up here in an Irish-Catholic family of four when the population was virtually all white. His mother, Mary Rita, was a homemaker; his father, Michael, worked as a ward superintendent for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. (The speaker’s current house, on the corner of 64th Street and Keeler Avenue, is a lot like him: dominant without being conspicuous; expertly manicured but not showy.)
While a student at highly regarded St. Ignatius College Prep and later, after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, Madigan got to know a man his father had befriended years before, when they both held patronage jobs in the Cook County clerk’s office. The man’s name was Richard J. Daley.
Daley, of course, would go on to create the most powerful political machine an American city has ever known. Among his precepts: Attend to your friends’ needs while either punishing or co-opting your enemies. Make everybody both dependent on and afraid of you.
According to people who have known Madigan for decades, Daley is one of the two men who have most profoundly shaped his worldview. The other is his father, who, the speaker told this magazine in a rare 1986 interview, “gave me a good understanding of how political people are driven by certain interests, quite often a personal self-interest.”
In 1969, two years after his graduation from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, the precinct captains of his ward elected Madigan committeeman. The 27-year-old had become the city’s youngest ward boss. In dizzying succession that year and next, the Daley-controlled Democratic machine slated Madigan as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention and then helped elect him a state representative.
In those days, Springfield was a sleepy backwater. From City Hall, Boss Daley called all the shots for the Chicago delegation; the Democratic House speakers served, more or less, at the pleasure of the mayor. (The joke in Chicago political circles used to be that if you did your time in the state legislature, you might one day rise to alderman.) The contingent of state legislators from the city didn’t necessarily contain the best and the brightest. Daley dispatched many ward hacks downstate simply to press a “yea” or “nay” button.
Madigan was not one of them. Ambitious, studious, and fanatically disciplined, he listened, learned, and shot up the ranks. He accrued power little by little, year after year, like a squirrel saving acorns for the winter.
William Redmond, the Democratic House speaker at the time Madigan was a young legislator, told the Tribune in 1988 that he recalled going one day into Madigan’s meticulously clean office. “I said, ‘Mike, you can’t be Irish. You’re too orderly.’ ” Madigan, said Redmond, replied, “My mother is German.”
During this period, Madigan also started a family. In 1976, he married Shirley Murray, a divorced law firm receptionist with a young daughter.
Madigan embraced the girl, Lisa, as his own, even formally adopting her after she turned 18. The couple went on to have three more children, whose professional lives have also not strayed far from their father’s vast sphere of influence. Tiffany, now 35, is an attorney who specializes in corporate and financial law at McGuireWoods (which has donated $46,000 to the speaker and another $10,500 to Lisa since 2006).Her husband, the attorney and lobbyist Jordan Matyas, is the chief of staff for the Regional Transportation Authority. (He used to work as an assistant legal counsel in the speaker’s office and in 2005 helped draft the state’s Payday Loan Reform Act. As a lobbyist, he later represented the Florida-based company that won state contracts to track payday lenders.)
Nicole Madigan, 33, is a real-estate attorney at DLA Piper (which has contributed $42,000 to Lisa since 2005). And last, there’s Andrew, 27, a vice president at the politically connected Mesirow Financial, which has received a bevy of state contracts and municipal bond work. Shirley, for good measure, has been an appointed member of the Illinois Arts Council since 1976—longer than her husband has been speaker—and its chairwoman for more than 20 years.
“There was a time, very early in his career, when people thought Madigan might one day be mayor,” says Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science and public affairs at the University of Illinois Springfield. “He was a South Sider, he was Irish, and he was smart.”
But in the tumultuous politics following Daley’s death in 1976, there was no guarantee that the line of mayoral succession would continue to run through the Southwest Side. Besides that, Madigan’s steely, introverted personality was not exactly mayor material. “He couldn’t be elected dog catcher if he had to run outside his little fiefdom,” says one former associate.
Shortly after Daley died, Madigan edged out Gerald Shea, a Daley old-timer, to become the party’s floor leader (read: enforcer) in the House. The next year he was named majority leader. He lost that prestigious position in 1980, when the Republicans rode Ronald Reagan’s coattails to control of the Illinois statehouse.
It was bad enough that the Republicans ran roughshod over the Democrats. They also put a big target on the issue they well knew was nearest and dearest to Madigan’s pocketbook: the state’s property tax system, particularly in clout-heavy Cook County.
The county’s property tax system was a notorious insiders’ racket, a cesspool of corruption. The property tax bar had become the de facto fundraising arm of the Cook County Democratic Party. (The size of the assessor’s campaign war chest used to rival that of the mayor’s.) Madigan himself had built a thriving law practice, Madigan & Getzendanner, that handled primarily property tax appeals for such clients as owners of huge commercial buildings.
First the Republicans passed a county property tax cap—the kind of proposal that Madigan used to crush. Then they added a host of new measures that screwed with the ability of property tax lawyers to make money, including dissolving the two-member Cook County Board of (tax) Appeals and replacing it with a three-commissioner panel, renamed the Board of Review, with new district lines (drawn to ensure that a Republican could be elected) and expanded powers to raise property assessments rather than just lowering them.
Madigan and his allies didn’t take kindly to the changes. “I’ve never in my life seen such vociferous opposition,” one of the Republican supporters of the legislation told Chicago in 2010. “It was the most amazing backlash I’d ever seen. I realized at that point that this was the goose who laid the golden egg.”
Madigan got his revenge. In the next election cycle, he pumped money and campaign staff into races in the south suburbs and won back nine seats, giving Democrats a paper-thin 60-to-58 majority—and restoring to Madigan his speakership. “After the election, he called us into a caucus meeting,” recalls Edgar Lopez, a state representative from Chicago’s North Side, who served from 1993 to 2001. “He said, ‘We have the House back, and we’re not going to make the same mistake again.’ ”
By the time Rod Blagojevich won the governorship in 2002, Madigan’s rule over Springfield was so absolute that it goaded the governor into profanity-laced hissy fits. “He’s more Machiavellian than Machiavelli,” Blagojevich told Chicago in 2010, after his impeachment. “When Machiavelli wrote The Prince, he had Mike Madigan in mind.”
In his second term, Blagojevich turned positively Nixonian in his efforts to destroy Madigan. Sources say that he allegedly ordered his chief of staff, John Harris, and his chief legal counsel, William Quinlan Jr., to secretly dig up dirt on the speaker and leak any potentially damaging information to the media. Whether that occurred is unknown. But much to Blago’s dismay, he—not Madigan—garnered all the bad headlines.
The Illinois General Assembly holds elections every two years. After each one that the Democrats win, Madigan tells all of his caucus members, new and old, that he wants just one vote from them during the session: to reelect him as speaker.
And they have, 15 times. Madigan has become as much a constant in Springfield as Abe Lincoln’s house on South Eighth Street. And to the amazement and irritation of his detractors,
Madigan’s power has only increased over the years. “When you get to be speaker of the House and you’ve been there as long as Mike has, you become the final say on everything,” says one former Republican House member who is now a lobbyist.
Madigan is famous for reading every bill and every line of the state’s $34 billion budget. Nothing gets passed without his blessing. “He knows members’ bills better than they do,” says Jack Franks, a Democratic state representative from Woodstock. “He knows more about the workings of the General Assembly than anyone, on any issue, at any time.”
The speaker involves himself in every political race that could remotely affect him, and many that don’t. “He loves the action,” a Madigan insider told Chicago in 1998. “You’re talking about a guy who will stay up until 4 a.m. studying polling numbers, who meets with the troops every Saturday, who likes to be around his patronage workers because it makes him feel like a king.”
As politically invincible as he is, Madigan still stoops to running against fake opponents whose names his workers place on the ballot to give the appearance of a competitive contest without actual competition. So even as he coasts to easy reelection every time—he typically wins more than 75 percent of the vote—he still acts like a paranoid dictator brooding over the next coup. At every reapportionment, he rigs the legislative districts politically to fatten his majority—democracy be damned.
Madigan’s obsession with control and his savant-like attention to detail extend beyond politics. Jim Sacia, a former Republican legislator from Freeport who retired in October after six terms, recalls once sitting next to the speaker at a committee meeting. “There was a break in the action, and he noticed my tie,” says Sacia. “He started talking about all the different kinds of neckties. Mike knew everything about ties. And he told me he still has every tie he’s ever owned.”
Madigan’s dominance over the legislative process means that lawmakers, lobbyists, and other supplicants must pay obeisance through favors, patronage, or political contributions. “We’re expected to follow along like lemmings and take a loyalty test over and over,” griped Julie Hamos, a former Democratic state representative from Evanston, after Madigan and his lieutenants blocked a 2009 ethics plan that she supported from coming out of his Rules Committee.
Madigan’s detractors point out that his endless power grabs rarely seem to serve a public policy agenda. Just look at the current Metra scandal. That little imbroglio will now cost taxpayers more than $700,000.
Or, how about this one? For five years, from 2005 to 2010, Madigan blocked the bills needed to refinance the bond debt for McCormick Place—because, critics say, the agency’s CEO had fired one of his political allies and nixed a proposed hotel deal with a prominent developer who had once been represented by the speaker’s law firm. The punitive delay cost taxpayers around a half-billion dollars in higher interest payments. (Madigan’s camp said the speaker held up the refinancing to prevent Rod Blagojevich’s cronies from receiving lucrative contracts.)
Speaking of Madigan’s law practice: A recent Sun-Times article reported that Madigan & Getzendanner has won nearly $44 million in property tax refunds for Chicago property holders and almost $14 million for suburban Cook County landowners over the past 10 years. When a downtown building gets its tax bill dropped, it not only shifts the tax burden to other property owners, who must make up the lost money, but it also siphons much-needed tax dollars from public schools, among other things.
Madigan repeatedly insists that he never crosses any pay-to-play lines. “He’s very careful not to mix [business and politics] publicly,” says another former state legislator, who has both clashed and cooperated with the speaker. “But the wink and the nod is there.”
Madigan controls far more than just half of one of the three branches of Illinois government, of course. He holds a second job as the chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, a third as the boss of Chicago’s 13th Ward, and a fourth as a name partner and the chief rainmaker of Madigan & Getzendanner. Together, they make up what one former Cook County elected official calls “the Madigan Political Industrial Complex.”
Take the state Democratic Party. Madigan uses his own war chest and the party campaign account to maintain his House majority, steering donations from corporate and special interests to favored candidates. Records show that Madigan has raised more than $35 million since 1994. He uses a third fund, Democratic Majority, to pay for polls, election materials, and campaign staff. That fund paid out almost $1 million in the final quarter of 2012, just before and after the November elections. Implicit in this arrangement is that his candidates, once they win, are beholden to him.
Madigan seized control of the party in 1998 after forcing out his protégé and former chief of staff, Gary LaPaille. Just as he consolidated his power in the House, Madigan placed the state party under his tight grip. He fired its staff, closed its headquarters in the Merchandise Mart, and moved it to his Springfield legislative office. Now the office lies about three miles from the Capitol, in the same ranch-style office building where Madigan’s campaign finance committee is located.
In 2005, when Howard Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee, he devised a program to rebuild the party in all 50 states in order to rival the grassroots organizations that Republicans had set up. Under Dean’s program, known as the 50-State Strategy, the national party paid for hundreds of new organizers and campaign workers. For the state parties, it was basically free money, and they happily accepted. All but one: Illinois’s. Madigan refused to let any national party workers into the state, his turf. “We have a 49-state strategy,” Dean would privately joke to his Illinois supporters, according to one Democratic fundraiser and activist.
Madigan has also remained the Democratic committeeman of the 13th Ward since 1969. As such, he inserts himself into the street-level battles of Chicago politics. He oversees an army of loyal foot soldiers nicknamed Madigoons, many of whom also hold patronage jobs in any number of city, county, and state government offices and agencies. “They’re all over the place,” says one former city official.
In a 1986 interview with Chicago, Madigan mentioned that he was trying to find a job for the unemployed brother-in-law of a lawmaker. Asked why he was doing it—as a magnanimous gesture or a crass political favor?—he replied: “Because it’s the correct thing for me to do in terms of maintaining a good relationship with the legislator, which builds my strength as the speaker and the Democratic leader.”
Despite a huge population shift in his Far Southwest Side ward—it is now about three-quarters Hispanic—Madigan has kept the Irish in charge. In the last election, he used a classic maneuver to install Marty Quinn, one of his former top aides, as alderman. Quinn and his predecessor, Frank Olivo, both filed petitions to run, but Olivo withdrew at the last minute, so no one else could enter the race.
Madigan also isn’t above the patronage politics of old. A recent Sun-Times investigation found that of the 30 campaign workers who circulated nominating petitions to get Madigan on the 2012 ballot, 29 work or have worked in government. Collectively, they were paid about $2 million a year in their government jobs—and contributed more than $200,000 to Madigan’s political funds or to Lisa Madigan’s campaign.
As a party committeeman, Madigan is also one of the main political masters who, cloistered in some backroom, picks which lawyers are slated for judgeships on the Circuit Court of Cook County. “That’s a big deal,” says a Chicago political insider. “You got somebody by the balls when you make him or a family member a judge.”
If that’s true, then David Ellis, along with the field of others the party chieftains have slated this election cycle, had better get a protective cup. Formerly chief legal counsel to the speaker, Ellis is pretty much a shoo-in for the ballot in the March primary for the First District Appellate Court, which includes Chicago and all of suburban Cook County.
But perhaps the most troubling part of Madigan’s vast web of influence is his role as rainmaker for his law firm. Time and again, Madigan has opposed property tax caps for Cook County real-estate owners. (Limiting property tax increases would hurt his business because, theoretically, there would be fewer appeals.) He has torpedoed reforms to simplify the county’s bewilderingly complex property tax system. (If it were too simple, people wouldn’t need to hire a lawyer.) And he has blocked efforts to reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes for funding public schools and other key government needs. (Lower property tax revenues mean less business.)
“Mike uses legislative power to ensure that the system stays the system—the system he makes,” says one Chicago political insider who is close to former mayor Richard M. Daley. “I remember the mayor told me once, ‘At some point, Mike just gave up on policy and focused overwhelmingly on making a lot of money.’ ”
It’s clear that Madigan, thanks to his law firm income, is loaded, though state ethics guidelines don’t require him to divulge how much he makes. (Conflict of interest laws would force Madigan to give up his outside legal work if he held the position of governor, say, or another statewide elected office. No such laws apply to the speaker.)
Many of the appeals made by Madigan & Getzendanner go to the office of Joseph Berrios, the Cook County assessor (and before that, the Board of Review), where Berrios sits in judgment. A former state representative in Madigan’s caucus, Berrios is still the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and the 31st Ward committeeman. Even by Illinois’s loose conflict of interest standards, the obviousness of the Madigan-Berrios connection is stupefying.
What’s more, sources allege that Madigan leverages his position as speaker to bring in business for his law practice. One former city official who asked not to be named says that Madigan would often say to him, “Get me business.” In return, he says, Madigan promised him referral fees.
Another former state legislator says that the speaker would occasionally summon him to his office. Madigan, he recalls, would be sitting at his desk, looking through a list of requests for proposals or new commercial developments—the legislator isn’t sure which. “He’d say, ‘A new development is going up on such-and-such a road—are you familiar with it?’
“I’d say, ‘Yeah, what about it?’
“He’d go, ‘I’d like you to introduce me to the developer.’ Or he’d say, ‘Can I send Getzendanner there?’ ”
Adds the legislator: “What am I going to tell him, no?”
In 2010, the Tribune reported that the speaker’s firm represented 45 of the 150 most valuable buildings in downtown Chicago—more than twice the number represented by its closest legal rival. With six lawyers—including Madigan, who does not actually handle cases—the firm has a reputation for doing top-notch work. Says one former Democratic state representative, “There are a lot of good lawyers practicing tax appeals. But if you had to choose between Joe Schmo and the speaker of the House, who would you pick?”
Given that nothing happens in Illinois government without Madigan’s blessing, many critics lay the blame for the state’s massive problems directly at his door. Illinois is broke, with pension debt approaching $100 billion and growing by $17 million a day. It has consistently failed to pass pension reform—or to reform much of anything else. Springfield has become a morass of inaction and ineptitude that has made the state a national laughingstock. For crying out loud, our top legislative leaders just took our governor to court . . . over their salaries. “No one person is solely responsible for Illinois’s troubles, not even Mike Madigan,” says Douglas Whitley, the president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. “But his role and longevity suggest that he above all others can be held accountable and responsible for what has gone on and what may happen in the future.”
In short, you’d think that being speaker of the Illinois House wouldn’t be a helluva lot of fun anymore, Democratic supermajority (currently 71 of 118 seats) notwithstanding. Madigan is well past retirement age. He could step down tomorrow and collect an annual pension of about $132,000. The longer he stays, the greater the risk of lasting damage to his already complicated legacy. And the greater the risk of poking and prodding into his secretive political and business dealings.
So why is he holding on to the job with an iron grip? He’s certainly not a policy visionary with a bold civic agenda he’s aching to complete. He’s not a do-gooder with a deep-seated need to help others. He’s not a passionate ideologue who won’t rest until, say, same-sex marriage or immigration reform becomes law.
Perhaps, some politicos around town speculate, Madigan didn’t step down when Lisa wanted to run for governor because he didn’t want his daughter to get thrown into the middle of the state’s horrific financial problems before he could deal with them. (At 47, she can wait four, maybe more, years.) Maybe he wants a new Republican governor to share the political burdens that his Democratic caucus largely carries.
Or maybe, having outlasted eight governors and eight Chicago mayors, he simply can’t tolerate feeling as if he’s being shoved out—even by his daughter. You don’t have to be Freud to see that Madigan has a profound need for power, order, and control. Angelo “Skip” Saviano, a former Republican legislator from Elmwood Park, notes that the 1994 Republican revolution that swept Madigan out of power in Springfield “drove him absolutely wacko.”
Most everyone who knows him agrees that Madigan is obsessed with winning. To him, bills are primarily cost-benefit analyses (“Will this help or harm my majority?”). Not only does he crave power; he’s become captive to it. “His job is his life, and his life is his job,” says James McPike, a legislator-turned-lobbyist who served 12 years as Madigan’s majority leader from 1983 to 1995 and remains one of the speaker’s closest friends.
Adds a current Republican legislator: “This is his oxygen. He can’t give it up.” And that, says Sacia, is Madigan’s “Achilles’ heel.”