Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, watches the proceedings from the Speaker's platform during the spring legislative session at the Bank of Springfield Center Friday, May 22, 2020.
CNN  — 

Illinois State House Speaker Mike Madigan has held his post almost continually since he first won it in 1983. He represents one of the last vestiges of the old party boss system – a man not terribly well-known outside of the city of Chicago but someone who, arguably, wields more influence than any other single figure in this massive Midwestern state.

Which makes the fact that 19 of Madigan’s House Democratic colleagues have come out in public opposition to him being elected to another term as speaker in January absolutely fascinating. Madigan, a man who has managed to float above the reputation of his state and city for corruption now sees himself tied – at least tangentially – to a pay-for-play scheme involving the state’s largest electrical utility.

In search of answers about how Madigan got here – and whether he can survive as speaker – I reached out to Chicago Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Explain, briefly the space Mike Madigan has occupied in Chicago Democratic politics for the last several decades.

Pearson: Madigan, 78, has been part of the fabric of city and state politics for more than a half century. He was born into the world of ward politics on the Southwest Side in the bungalow belt near Midway Airport where his father was a Democratic precinct captain. He also grew into the political patronage system, holding city jobs while becoming a trusted part of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s machine.

In 1969, he was elected the youngest ward boss in the city at the age of 27. That year, Daley also tapped him to become a delegate to the convention that wrote the state’s 1970 Constitution — its current governing document — as well as to keep an eye on another delegate, Daley’s son, the future Mayor Richard M. Daley.

In 1970, Madigan was elected to the Illinois House, where he has served ever since. While city mayors came and went, Madigan continued to accumulate power and jobs through city and county allies, and in 1983 he became House speaker. He has held that post ever since, with the exception of 1995-1997 when Republicans took brief control of the chamber.

The year Madigan first became speaker also was the first year of the “Cutback Amendment,” a voter-approved state constitutional amendment which created single-member House districts and reduced the size of the chamber by one-third. The real effect was to concentrate power – and campaign money – into the hands of the legislative leaders and Madigan proved to be a master fundraiser.

Governors both Republican and Democrat have acknowledged Madigan as the real power in Illinois politics – through his ability to singularly control the fate of legislation and dictate the vote of his members being key to any politician’s agenda. He would quash measures sought by Chicago mayors until he was able to extract concessions in return or punish them if they weren’t offered. He made the local share of the state income tax temporary so that Mayor Richard M. Daley had to come back to him for help, allowing him to extract more from Daley.

Madigan also is a property tax assessment attorney, which has proved to be a lucrative business. In addition to representing major city businesses in appealing property taxes, getting a cut of any reduction, business leaders also know of Madigan’s clout and offer property tax business as recognition.

Madigan also has further concentrated his power by holding the position of chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, a post he was elected to in 1998. But unlike other states’ party organizations which strive to be publicly active and take a role in national affairs, Madigan cared little about national politics – even before Illinois turned into a reliably Democratic state on the presidential scene. Instead, he used the party as a closed operation to help further his Democratic majorities in areas that had been traditionally Republican – such as the suburban “collar counties” which surround Chicago and Cook County.

Cillizza: Madigan is the longest-serving state speaker of the House in the country – in power for all but two years since 1983. How has he managed to last so long amid so many changes within the Democratic Party?

Pearson: On the old “Star Trek” series, there was a 3-D chessboard. Consider Madigan to be the political grandmaster. For much of his career, Madigan was able to outmaneuver political adversaries on issues to the point of either sensing the tide on an issue and getting in front of it, waiting his opponents out or helping to defeat them.

But Madigan has also lasted because of his ability to change. At one time, citing his Roman Catholic faith, Madigan was opposed to abortion and his ideology could be viewed almost as a Blue Dog centrist-to-conservative Democrat. But with his ability to adapt, Madigan eventually oversaw progressive legislation making Illinois a leader in abortion rights, one of the first states to enact same-sex marriage before the US Supreme Court ruled and the 11th state to legalize recreational adult use of marijuana.

Progressive is still not a word used to describe Madigan. Madigan’s primary goal [is] maintaining power and a Democratic legislative majority.

Cillizza: Has Madigan ever faced a real threat to his power? When and why?

Pearson: Previously, the only threat Madigan faced to his power, aside from the two years when Republicans held the Illinois House, came under Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich and recently defeated one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Blagojevich sought to build alliances with then-Democratic Illinois Senate President Emil Jones to try to advance his agenda, though it was widely viewed as damaging to the state’s economy and unaffordable. Blagojevich would tell Jones that no one viewed him as a power or respected him as Senate president because Madigan was widely regarded as the power in Illinois. This created tensions between Madigan and Jones, and Madigan ultimately used the House to kill off most of Blagojevich’s ill-conceived initiatives. Those feelings were beneath the obvious issues that included trying to shake down a children’s hospital and sell a US Senate seat that led to Blagojevich’s eventual impeachment, removal from office and federal conviction.

Under Rauner, a wealthy equity investor, Madigan faced his toughest battles. Rauner used his cash to bankroll Republican legislative candidates, using ads calling Madigan “corrupt” and blaming Madigan for all of the perceived ills that had befallen Illinois. Rauner also backed a pro-business, anti-union agenda that sought to weaken one of Madigan’s greatest sources of financial support — organized labor.

The ideological clash between the two led to Illinois going two years without a state budget with government funded through court orders that far outstripped available cash. Ultimately, Madigan won support from some Republicans for a budget and income tax increase in an attempt to repair the wreckage caused to social service agencies and places like Illinois colleges and universities.

Rauner lasted one term and lost to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2018.

Though Rauner has departed the political scene, his heavy spending and daily criticisms of Madigan inflicted serious damage. Once a figure that everyday Illinoisans never knew, Madigan has become viewed as extremely unpopular – even before the federal investigation in which he has been implicated.

Cillizza: Why is this the moment that Madigan appears to be in real trouble in his effort to remain as speaker? Is all his history finally catching up with him?

Pearson: Reflecting his ability to adapt, Madigan now finds a caucus with a large contingent of women members. But in 2018, cracks developed in support for Madigan amid the #MeToo movement when he faced issues regarding sexual harassment in both his political and governmental operation. He discarded veteran political operatives including his longtime chief of staff, appointed more women to senior posts and promised to do more to prevent any recurrences.

But frustration with Madigan has been building with a younger, more progressive caucus straining under an autocratic style which lets members advance only a few of their bills per session.

Then in July, Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest electrical utility, agreed to pay a $200 million fine and cooperate with federal prosecutors in acknowledging its part of a near decade-long bribery and influence scheme, seeking to win Madigan’s favor on legislation by giving jobs and contracts to Madigan’s top allies.

On Wednesday, the former CEO of ComEd and once one of the city’s most powerful businesswomen, Anne Pramaggiore, two other utility players and Madigan’s top private sector confidant, lobbyist and former lawmaker Michael McClain, pleaded not guilty to charges associated with the scheme.

Rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers and candidates in the November 3 election said that as they tried to explain their positions on issues, voters repeatedly said their chief interest was what were they going to do about Madigan.

Distrust of Madigan was also cited as a factor in the defeat of the governor’s signature agenda item, a proposed state constitutional amendment to change Illinois from a flat-rate income tax to a graduated-rate tax that rises with income, a system similar to the federal government and used by more than 30 states. Opponents, largely funded by business interests, continually raised the question of “do you trust politicians with more tax money?” The amendment was rejected overwhelmingly by voters in a hugely expensive campaign.

Pritzker contends the amendment’s loss is in part due to Madigan and has said he should consider stepping down. US Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber’s leadership, also said the party paid a heavy price for Madigan’s leadership after his favored local congressional candidate, Betsy Dirksen Londrigan of Springfield, was defeated by four-term US Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville. Davis tarred Londrigan with ads associating her with Madigan.

Madigan had always been viewed on the outside as smart enough to avoid being caught in the city and state’s history of corruption. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He doesn’t have a cell phone or use email. He said he retains sizable support in his caucus and will seek reelection as speaker and doesn’t intend to step down.

But in politics, perception caries a great deal of weight and the public perception of Madigan is now being joined by at least 19 members of his expected 73-member majority in the new General Assembly that convenes in January. Rather than a leader, the dissidents consider him a hindrance and a distraction.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “In January the next Speaker of the Illinois state House will be ________.” Now, explain.

Pearson: I don’t mean to weasel out here but this is very much an open question. In the past, there were heirs apparent to Madigan should he have stepped down. But Madigan has outlasted them. The women’s caucus is sizable and has now become a political force. The Black caucus in the House has always been influential. Progressives have become a larger factor in the chamber and they will want to be represented. Members of Madigan’s current leadership team want consideration.