Episode 1: Up From the Garbage Truck

To understand Michael J. Madigan, you have to understand where he came from. In the first episode host Justin Kaufmann explores the 13th Ward and the Chicago Machine with local journalists and politicos. They also discuss the self-styled rules Madigan followed in his climb from Chicago’s Southwest Side to the pinnacle of power in Springfield, Illinois.

With special guests State Representative Kelly Cassidy (14th) and Former State Representative Ken Dunkin (5th), Alaina Hampton, Mick Dumke, David Kidwell, John Chase, Dave McKinney and Ray Long.


(00:00): In the last 50 years, Illinois has given us some of the most powerful figures in American politics: Two presidents -- Obama, and Reagan; two Daleys -- Richard J. And Richard M. -- plus Rahm and Rosty. But no one has been more powerful in the state of Illinois than Michael J. Madigan.

(00:21): I think it's a story more about Chicago than it is about Mike Madigan.

(00:25): When you're able to harness the cash to reward your allies and punish your foes that just becomes another step in that, in that power aura that Madigan held.

(00:38): He failed the Black community big time.

(00:41): There was no HR set up in this organization. So the only two options I had to report it to was the brother of my harasser or the most powerful politician in the state, Mike Madigan.

(00:54): I saw a very different side of the speaker, a different side of him than I had experienced a side of him that was funny and welcoming and friendly and engaging.

(01:05): A lot of the interest there was about maintaining personal power, as opposed to what's the best policy outcome interest for the state of Illinois.

(01:13): He said, Bruce, I do two things. I manage power and I make money from managing power.

(01:19): No matter what I mean that you're not going to see anything like that. He is, is he the last legacy of the machine?

(01:26): A lot of people stay too long and he might've stayed too long. But if I was the governor and I was going to have to do something tough, I sure want him as speaker, try to help get it done.

(01:36): With fewer than 10,000 votes from the 22nd district in most elections, Madigan dominated the entire state for five decades, amassed power and reach unrivaled and unsurpassed. His 50 years span 10 presidents from Nixon to Biden and eight governors. And then in early 2021, his dynasty came to an abrupt end, amid a growing investigation into corruption by close associates and staff members. He was pushed out as the chair of the Democratic party and removed as speaker of the house, a position he held for 36 of the last 38 years. For all of his prominence and power, Michael Madigan remains largely a man of mystery. He rarely gave interviews, didn't seek the spotlight, never sought higher national office. So who is Mike Madigan? This is a story of how he came to power, how he wielded that power and how that power affected the lives of the citizens of Illinois. Welcome to the first episode of the Madigan Rule. I'm Justin Kaufmann. This podcast is a production of the Better Government Association. It's the story of the longest serving state house speaker in American history. This is Episode 1 "Up from the Garbage Truck." In this podcast we look back and talk with people who are witness firsthand -- colleagues, rivals, reporters, people who battled him and collaborated with him, people who feared him and revered him.

(03:08): He started off as an individual who worked on the back of a garbage truck. And he rose to become an attorney and ended up representing the majority of commercial developments or properties in the city of Chicago.

(03:24): Former state representative, Ken Dunkin.

(03:27): You're talking about an individual who created laws to insulate himself from any additional pursuits that followed into his legal profession, those of his friends, those of his political minions. So he created an institution that goes back several generations, at least three to four, and all of those individuals in some way, shape or form, be indebted to him.

(03:56): To understand Madigan, you must begin by understanding the structure of Democratic party politics in Chicago. A system of wards, precinct captains, ethnic and tribal, the Democratic party rose to power in the mid 20th Century because it was a family business for many. Daley, Burke, Hynes and Madigan. That's where he comes from. His dad, a precinct captain in the 13th Ward. Young Mike Madigan started on the back of a garbage truck, moved his way up the political ladder in the Chicago machine. What's the machine? ProPublica's Mick Dumke.

(04:30): The machine system - you stay in power by exchanging favors and the patronage system is what it sounds like. Essentially jobs are dispensed to loyal members of your political organization, who in return for their continued employment, mostly in government positions, although as we've found out now, not necessarily. There were private companies, the utilities namely, that were also participating in this system, but in return for their continued employment, you went out and essentially had a second job. Sometimes it was your primary job to do political work for the organization, ranging from knocking on doors at election time to, I guess, knocking on doors in between elections to make sure people were satisfied with the representation that they got, the garbage cans they need, they got the services they needed. And there was that communication with elected officials, but the whole thing rested on this exchange of favors, essentially,

(05:32): If you want to truly understand Mike Madigan, the one place to start is the 13th Ward.

(05:37): The 13th Ward is an area of, uh, Chicago's Southwest side, near Midway Airport. Um, long time home of a lot of public sector workers also for a long time considered one of the ethnic wards, meaning these were mostly white people, of course, but they had a strong ethnic identity. Some of them immigrants or second- or third-generation immigrants, Mike Madigan, of course, Irish, but a lot of Polish families out that way, Lithuanian other Eastern European groups over the years, it is, the demographics have shifted considerably. So that now I believe the 13th ward, like most of the Southwest side is predominantly Hispanic, but Mike Madigan worked with that too. While he, a white Irish guy, stayed on top of the organization all these years, he had a lot of lieutenants and people up and down the ladder of the chain of command in his organization who were themselves Hispanic. So he managed to figure out how to, how to keep in connection with the community and make sure that he had that kind of base of support.

(06:46): Another part of the recipe, hard work here's David Kidwell from the BGA.

(06:50): I think he had his eye on the prize from very early. And it's really, I think it's difficult for, especially now, because most of it's illegal in terms of patronage, but I think it's really difficult for most politicians to get their mind around the fact of how much he worked on keeping his people happy and employed and promoted and able to take care of their families. And we're talking about literally hundreds of people, probably even more than that, he spent a great deal of his days just making phone calls to make sure this guy was taken care of and that guy was taken care of and that garbage hauler and that, right, at every level. And I don't think anybody can comprehend the amount of effort that his life was behind taking care of that, that, that support base.

(07:47): So one secret to the Madigan recipe is to work your ass off. Another key work the voters.

(07:53): Mike Madigan won his power by manipulating the voters. In other words, he had guys out at their front door, driving them to the precinct. I don't think politicians today think that way. They think about politics as more of a romance and wooing people and, and manipulating the mindset and getting people out to the polls through social media or, or, you know, charisma or whatever. Mike Madigan was the, is the anti that he, he and his contemporaries like Richard Daley and Ed Burke just thought of politics as a different way. And that is, you know, it's not about charisma. It's about just hard work and developing this phalanx of people who are going to work for you. So it's like stuffing the ballot box almost, you know, in a legal way, at the time.

(08:45): Alaina Hampton worked for the 22nd district in the famed Madigan organization.

(08:48): Really, it comes down to discipline. It was about people that work the hardest. I mean, when they ask you to do something, you'd never say no, and truly it was a very disciplined experience. A lot of times I was working when I was really young, you know, maybe eight years ago I was knocking on doors 40 hours a week. And then I would do my government job during the day, go knock doors after work. When I was in campaign season, I was walking, knocking on doors 70 hours a week. I mean, it was really, really intense, but it was a good experience. I learned a lot from them. I grew up downstate in a Republican family, Republican area. All I knew about Chicago politics really was corruption. And somehow I had started working out of the 13th Ward. It was so bizarre to see how everyone treated him and alderman Marty Quinn.

(09:45): Like they were these like mystical creatures that everyone had to look up to all the time and we should be afraid of all the time. But as someone that actually worked around Madigan, like in his district office, it was really a special experience, honestly, because I had a different type of connection with him and the ward organization, the precinct captains that most staffers that work in Springfield don't get. And he is actually like a very kind person, very quiet. When I would come into the office, he would make me coffee. We both had the same favorite coffee. So when he would make a cup for himself, he would make a cup for me. It was interesting to have that different experience and see him in a way that other people never got to.

(10:35): Madigan's playbook wasn't just about taking care of his community. It was about mastering the rules of the game, knowing the rules better than anyone and using them to your advantage, whether it's parliamentary procedure, ethics laws, or election laws. Again, Mick Dumke.

(10:51): You don't just win by outpolling your opponent. You win by making sure you don't have an opponent and using the machinery of the, the ballot process to get people kicked off before the election even started. You know, the most famous nationally famous politician from Chicago, Barack Obama, first got his start this way, won his first seat in the state senate by getting his opponents booted off the ballot. So Mike Madigan, even when they didn't get people booted, the threat of, you know, just taking on Mike Madigan and his whole machine, I think was enough to dissuade a lot of people from even going there.

(11:32): There are all kinds of stories going back to the beginning of time about when, when anybody even remotely dangerous filed to run against him, there would suddenly be this flood of candidates, many of which propped up by Madigan himself against himself to split the vote against himself, to dilute the vote. So you literally had no chance, no chance whatsoever of challenging Mike Madigan and in his own district.

(12:07): A couple of years ago, I went down on primary election day, March, 2018 and just walked around because at that point in time, there were starting to be a few dents in the armor of Mike Madigan. Certainly of his public image. I traveled down there. I wanted to just talk to voters in Mike Madigan's ward. And the first place I chose, I saw the address and I was like, well, you know, there's no place of business or anything referenced on the, on the list of polling places for this particular place. So I walked up to it and like, am I in the wrong spot? It's like a bungalow. It's like this brick house on the corner of a street. There's nothing else on the street, except other bungalows. It's quiet except for the occasional sound of an airplane going into Midway or somebody cutting the grass down the street, but you walk up and I realized, no, I'm in the right place. There was a polling place sign, like on the side door to this house. I walk up, I opened the door. The first person I see is a woman sitting half a flight up at her kitchen table, like having breakfast or something. And I'm just like, oh my God, I've walked into somebody's house. I'm so embarrassed. You know, she just points downstairs. So she's basically telling me you're in the right place. The place to go is downstairs. So there's a whole polling place set up in this woman's basement.

(13:34): You know what I saw there was just sort of a snapshot of how the whole machine worked because the first person I spoke to in the basement was a woman who said she was a poll watcher. Each party can send someone to be a quote unquote poll watcher to make sure things appear to be proceeding without any hocus pocus going on, you know, any, any kind of shenanigans going on. But then as I hung around a little longer, I saw her leave her job as a poll watcher and go stand outside and hand out literature for the ward organization to people coming in to vote. And it was clear. She knew who most of these people were because they greeted each other by first name. You know, somebody came up to me, they're like, 'Hey, do you know where Jenny is?' And it turns out, you know, Jenny knew this guy who she called Manny, and that's just how it worked. What I saw there is sort of a microcosm. It's sort of an example of how the whole system works. Here's former Tribune, investigative reporter, John Chase. Now with the BGA.

(14:38): It has changed quite a bit throughout Mike Madigan's career. But where it started was the patronage army Chicago machine under Richard J. Daley, which really started previously under Mayor Cermak. And so that's how he grew up. Those were his formative political years. And so he kept that going, even as the machine died or, you know, in pieces over the years, he kept a lot of it alive because that's how he grew up. He didn't need to put on commercials. He didn't need to sell himself to anybody. He needed to win 10,000 votes in the 22nd district on the Southwest Side of Chicago. And that's it. He didn't need a communication style. He didn't need to convince him, uh, the voters of Illinois, that he was a good guy. He didn't care. And he didn't need to because the power came from this very small world.

(15:32): After winning a state representative seat in the Illinois 22nd, Madigan rose up the ranks of leadership within the Democratic house caucus. Ultimately becoming speaker of the house, a position he held for 36 years. In 1998 he also ran for and won the position of the chairman for the Illinois Democratic Party. That combination of House speaker and party chair gave him enormous influence over candidate selection, campaign contributions, the legislative process and political loyalty. Here's Representative Kelly Cassidy.

(16:05): You know, I'd been working in and around politics and advocacy for many years before I came into office and I was married into a family that had a personal friendship with him. So I saw that side of him as well. But, yeah, I was always very much aware that he ran the show. I remember when I first came into office, I was originally appointed to fill a vacancy. And I met with him in his downtown office and he was describing what what's referred to as the program. They would put someone in your district office. So you got an extra staff person without coming out of your district office allotment that would help you sort of get up and running and get your, your operation going. And he explained this person was going to be in my office and there was a formula to follow. You were going to knock the door, this many doors a week and make this many calls a week and make, you know, this, write this many letters a week.

(16:56): And, and that you're in, in-district person would report back. And he said, a lot of people quit the program because they think I put a spy in their office because I did. And I just laughed and was like, all right, I'm in, I got nothing to hide. So I did do the program. My first, my first term. His theory, and he's not wrong is that solid constituent service drives political success. Period. You set up your district office in the right way. You serve your constituents with an obsession and they're going to reelect you and he's not wrong.

(17:30): For all of his power and influence Madigan was also remarkably discreet and disciplined. David Kidwell.

(17:36): That's the one thing that amazes me most about Mike Madigan is the amount of power he's been able to accumulate without essentially courting the voter at all. There are no quotes from Mike Madigan. You search for quotes, and he is just as happy, never, with no public face whatsoever. And, and I think that, again, goes back to this army of power that he has, that has really nothing to do with the voters, but it is incredible. He doesn't have email. He talks on the phone. Uh, there is some technology there, but he governed by holding court in his office every day. And it's just really, really, really hard to pin him down anything because he doesn't really say much.

(18:18): Here's WBEZ's Dave McKinney.

(18:20): He wound up using the chairmanship of the state Democratic Party to, to really kind of cement the majorities in the house over the years, because there was, you know, one, one big advantage strategically of him running that was, you know, getting these great discounts on postage for mail pieces that the house Democrats were sending out. And I mean, you think of a state party chairman, and you think that, that this is going to be somebody who will go out in front of cameras and be, you know, either be a cheerleader and, and help kind of sell whatever the party's selling that day, or be a bulldog and attack the, the Republicans for, for doing what they're doing. And Madigan never really had any keen interest in doing any of that part of this job. He was, he was instead just using it more or less to ensure that he never lost the gavel in the Illinois House.

(19:10): In his private life, Madigan was a lawyer with the firm of Madigan & Getzendanner, a firm specialized in property tax appeals. If you wanted to hire a firm that would help you navigate the political appeals process, you hired Madigan. Over time, he mastered the art of blending the political, the personal and the professional. Again, the BGA's David Kidwell.

(19:31): He's an incredibly smart guy who built enough power and enough name recognition so that when he is sitting in front of the CEO in a skyscraper, the fact that he's there is enough. 'Hey, I hear you need a property tax lawyer.' It's really, really hard to say no to that guy, because, you know, if you're the CEO, at some point, you're going to need something out of the state legislature. And it doesn't have to be said and Mike Madigan never said it. It frankly was shocking to me when I heard the tape of Ed Burke saying it. I mean, Ed Burke has the same sort of property tax business. And he got caught on tape making the deal. And Mike Madigan just never has the, not that we can find. And I'm not sure that he ever would, but he didn't have to.

(20:22): And what's amazing about his partnership with Vincent Getzendanner is that he's, he's the name partner in a property tax appeal law firm in a state, in a county, in an area that forces you to appeal your property taxes almost every single year. Especially, especially if you're a major business. What's amazing about it, even though he's a lawyer and he's a named partner in, in that, in that firm, he has very rarely if ever done any actual law. His only job there is to go from skyscraper to skyscraper from business to business saying, 'Hey, I hear you need a property tax attorney.' Bud Getzendanner does all the actual law there. That's what amazes me and the fact that the state ethics laws allow that is even more amazing considering who's in charge those.

(21:16): So another secret to Madigan's power was to master the rules of the game. And when you can go one better. Write the rules yourself. Here's Chicago Tribune reporter Ray Long.

(21:28): Well, he definitely drew some of the tightest rules that you'd find throughout the nation. And that was really his second vote that he wanted from lawmakers. First, vote for him for speaker. Second, vote for his rules. He was able to kill many, many proposals in that rules committee. And as a result there were a lot of people who were who bristled about it. And that is one of the reasons that he was viewed as so powerful, because he could stop things or he could let them go. And when the Republicans had control of the Senate and control of the governorship, he was viewed by labor, by trial lawyers, by Democrats, as the stopper of bad legislation for things like the City of Chicago or for Democrats in general. He was powerful by the way, he set things up and he tried to keep things under control at all times. He knew where the lines were. He made the rules, he made the laws, he knew how far he could go on each one of those. And, of course, the question is whether or not he ever went past them.

(22:51): That's Ray Long. Before him, Dave McKinney and others we'll hear more from all of them as the series continues coming up in episode two.

(22:59): The entire House stood up, Democratic and Republican, and booed me for three minutes. Standing boo-vation led by Madigan.

(23:09): Madigan Rule is produced by me, Justin Kaufmann, in association with the BGA, the executive producer is David Greising, special thanks to Steve Edwards for story consulting and Alex Sugihara for the music. Shout out to the Tribune's years-long series, The Madigan Rules, which was lead by the BGA's David Kidwell and John Chase beginning in 2010. To find out more about the BGA's investigative reporting and watchdog efforts go to www.bettergov.org.

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