Episode 3: Power over Policy

So how did Madigan survive so long in Illinois politics? How did busted budgets and a slurry of scandal leave him untouched?

History’s longest-serving statehouse speaker, Madigan will be remembered less for the policies he enacted than for the power he extracted. In this episode, we explore his political acumen and the infamous showdown with Governor Bruce Rauner.


(00:05): In 1998, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan added another huge piece to his powerful chessboard. He was elected to take over as chairman of the Illinois State Democratic Party. Becoming party chair meant Madigan could control legislation in the house and control which candidates received money and fundraising support from the Democratic Party. The BGA's John Chase.

(00:29): That did open up a world where he didn't have any interference whatsoever in, in running now, not just the State House, but the state Democratic Party and the Democratic Party was, at that point, the dominant party and has ever since been in Illinois. And it goes to this point about funding campaigns. Other than a few races, he really just cared about, uh, reelecting or electing new Democrats to the state House of Representatives. He didn't care really much about Governor, even. He really just you know, he wasn't supporting the whole party in Cook County or in DuPage County. It was all just about state rep races. And that's because that's where his power was.

(01:16): I'm Justin Kaufmann. This is the "Madigan Rule." This podcast is a production of the Better Government Association, episode three "Power over Policy".

(01:34): In 2012, Will Guzzardi was a young, progressive Democrat living on Chicago's Northwest Side. He hated the way machine politicians played favorites and perpetuated the status quo. So he decided to mount an insurgent campaign. He challenged incumbent Democrat state representative Toni Berrios to a primary race. It was a bold move, especially for a political novice. That's because Berrios wasn't just any incumbent. She was the daughter of the powerful chair of the Cook County Democratic Party Joe Berrios. She and her dad were both loyal allies of Michael Madigan. Not surprisingly the Guzzardi-Berrios primary attracted a lot of attention and a lot of blowback for Guzzardi, but he did better than many expected. He lost that first election by just 125 votes. Two years later, he challenged Berrios again.

(02:27): Speaker Madigan worked really hard to keep me from having this job. Uh, I ran against the Democratic incumbent and his policy was always to support incumbents. So his political apparatus spent half a million dollars against me and said all kinds of terrible things about me during that campaign. And then I won and it all changed.

(02:53): I saw a very different side of the speaker, a different side of him than I had experienced and a different side than I think people in the general public, think about. A side of him that was funny and welcoming and friendly and engaging and frustrating in lots of ways. But yeah, very different from the Tribune editorial board version of him that we might know. I didn't know much about Mike Madigan at all before I got into politics. I really did know him as the caricature, you know, as the sorta all powerful puppet master, like subject of endless speculation who never emerges from behind the curtain and, you know, who's responsible for the outcomes of everything in Springfield. He was really sort of a cartoon figure to me. After I won my primary, he called me in for a meeting to his law office downtown, and I was, you know, 26 and terrified. I show up in in this like oak-paneled boardroom. And he's just like, tell me what you're interested in. And we just had this hour-long conversation. We talk about clean energy. We talk about, uh, you know, raising the minimum wage, progressive economic politics. He's telling me about this biography he's reading of LBJ. You know, he's reading the Caro books at the moment and we talk about like that, that whole, you know, navigating that process. And he says it in the meeting like, listen, my job here is to help you succeed. So when you get down to the legislature, let me know the bills you're working on and if you ever have any challenges with it, my goal is to help you get them passed. I was just flabbergasted. I was expecting a very different approach from him and, and that turned out to be how he was as a leader, um, in my experience of him anyway. He would make whatever efforts he could to help out other Democrats and other colleagues.

(04:44): And, and I think perhaps to a fault. I think that a lot of what sort of has subsequently come out about him has been that he helped people get jobs and get placed in places that he shouldn't have that were unethical and corrupt in ways. But I think it came from that sort of basic impulse of like rather have you as a friend than an enemy. In many ways, he really was like that. He really was the caricature that, um, that has been portrayed in a lot of ways, right. He controlled the legislative process. It all flowed through him personally. He used that control to deliver favors and benefits to the people close to him and to the people who he thought should have those favors and benefits. And then that was a decision made by him and not by a sort of process of good governance or public policy making. You know, that stuff is true, but I think it's like a yes/and situation, where yes, that is all true of him.

(05:53): And it's not the caricature that you have seen in the newspapers. That IPI cartoon of him is not who he is. And like, just to close the loop on this story. After that first meeting with him, you know, my jaw kinda drops and I'm like, okay, thanks very much, and I go home. And two days later, there's a manila envelope in my mailbox. And it has a note from him. And it's a copy of that Robert Caro book that he was talking about "Master of the Senate." He says, hey, we talked about this the other day, thought you might be interested. You know, just like a thoughtful guy who wanted to help people succeed.

(06:34): Helping a young freshman representative succeed after he just took out a loyal ally, you spent half a million dollars trying to defend could be a profile in sportsmanship or a lesson in how to lose gracefully, or it could be evidence of a realpolitik, the hard-nosed realism of a veteran more concerned with maintaining power than debating policy platforms. Again, Will Guzzardi.

(06:58): I think he was able to hold onto power for as long as he did. I think one central reason why he was able to hold on to power as long as he did is that he did not let his personal ideological compunctions get in the way of his desire to hold on to power. And that's not something I can say for myself if I were in his shoes. Like I go to Springfield because there's a set of values that I believe in. And like, I don't think I could just sort of ditch those and pick up another set of values to hold onto power, right? Like that's not how I operate. You look at the issue of choice where like Madigan grew up in an Irish Catholic family and in the church and came into the legislature really anti-choice. And, and there was a lot of space for an Irish, Irish Catholic anti-choice Democrat.

(07:48): When he came into the legislature in the seventies. Politics changed, the electoral environment, changed the fundraising environment changed, and he was able to really change with that. And to say, I'm going to lead this party in a sort of relentlessly and unflinchingly pro-choice direction to capture the electorate that we need to win, to capture the fundraising base that we need to win. I mean, truly, uh, like a remarkable pivot in that way, that like in the final years of his tenure as speaker, we were passing the most progressive pro-choice legislation in the country, right? Medicaid funding for abortion. I mean really like groundbreaking stuff.

(08:40): Despite those and other legislative achievements, many say Michael Madigan was far more concerned with maintaining power than advancing any ideology. Pat Brady is the former head of the Illinois Republican Party. He only cares about self-preservation. So if he needs to

(08:55): Go to the left to keep it in that spot, he'll do it. And he did it. He, he would do whatever it took to keep him in that spot. Everybody down there, uh, treated him like some kind of God. And he was Mike Madigan and he had his office he didn't let anybody in. And it was a weird world you couldn't get beyond Tim Mapes. It was just strange. It's he's an odd little guy. And those are questions that a lot of people had, but everybody had to kiss his backside because he had the power that he had.

(09:24): Brady became chair of the Illinois Republican Party in 2009. At the time the Illinois GOP was decimated. The party had just come off an embarrassing campaign for the US Senate against Barack Obama. Democrats were adding to big majorities in Illinois House and Senate and Democrats also controlled the all-important legislative map. Republicans couldn't even defeat the scandal-plagued Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. Pat Brady knew that the Republican Party needed to change its ways if it was going to have any hope of winning again.

(09:54): In 2009, my strategy was fire Madigan. It wasn't so much that we were going to beat Mike Madigan, but we needed to make voters aware of who Mike Madigan is and how he operates. And I remember Rick Pearson, you were probably there at the WGN studios, going hey, we just did a poll and only 29% of the people know who Madigan is. And I go, Rick, that's my point. Now, 80% of the people know who people is because I think in part what we did in 2010 and what they did in 2016, when I wasn't chairman, was to point out who Mike Madigan is and how he operates and tie that into how poorly managed the state has been. And I think that was tremendously effective, but that being said, Mike Madigan, uh, in the last couple cycles, had, had, had some big gains. So, you know, mixed bag. But from my perspective, the goal, we set to make people aware of who he is and how he manages the state. I think we were successful. Brady

(10:45): had planted a seed that others on the political right continued to cultivate. John Tillman is the founder of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank.

(10:54): I sat down and had lunch with two very prominent Chicago business leaders. Names you would know. And had a discussion about this exact subject in 2013. And I made the argument that we can't fix the state until Mike Madigan is gone and he won't be gone until, uh, the rank and file members fear their own voters more than they fear Mike Madigan. And the only way they were going to fear their own voters more than they feared Mike Madigan was if he became an albatross. Uh, in politics, you know, the, the political opponents of, uh, tobacco growers and tobacco, uh, processors have done a very good job of making Big Tobacco toxic. Big Oil has been made toxic by some in the political debate. Uh, for a lot of that conversation, uh, we set a goal of not making Mike Madigan toxic, but simply educating the public on the truth of who Mike Madigan was. And the public would come to its own decisions as to whether or not he was toxic or not. The key to Mike Madigan's power is there's not a lot of tape on him. He doesn't speak publicly very often. Uh, his whole idea is to operate behind the scenes. He is the wizard behind the curtain. We want to pull back the curtain and tell his story. So we started writing about him in 2013, 2014, 2015 with a much greater frequency and in depth started examining his rules back then and educating people on how his power actually worked.

(12:14): By this time, wealthy Chicago businessman Bruce Rauner was becoming more involved in local politics and public policy. He was a rising campaign funder, a philanthropist and civic leader. That's how he first met Chicago politicians like Mike Madigan.

(12:29): He knew that I was a big Democratic funder. I was a huge funder of Rich Daley and other Democrats. And, and he said, uh, you know, I was school reformer. Bruce, I'd love to work with you and see what we can do to help improve the schools. And I'm like, awesome. That's fantastic. I've heard. So we met, he came to my office, my business office downtown. We had a very cordial meeting. We were both buttering each other up. You know, he wanted some of the money from the PAC. I wanted his support for legislative changes and we were, you know, had an interesting, good, very positive. He was a funny guy, gregarious, really. We had a lot of fun. And, uh, so we had our first meeting. Then we had a second meeting. We actually had breakfast together and we had multiple meetings and meals together over the, over that time.

(13:10): In that window of time, the second meeting, we're alone, just the two of us over at the Chicago Club. And we're getting to know each other, we're buttering each other up. You know, he wants, you know, I'm a fairly successful business guy. I got a lot of money. I fund Democrats. He loves that. I need him, you know, we're talking family, we're talking politics we're yucking it up and shining each other's knobs. And you know, we're going to need each other work if we're to work together. And during the course of that discussion, I said, so Mike, you're the most powerful politician, maybe in Illinois history. I mean, you, it's incredible your power. Like, what's it. Tell me about that. What, what's your goal? What do you want to do with that? And he said, I don't know, Bruce. I just like to work.

(13:46): I just love to work. And I said, oh, that's a blessing. Yeah. We all, I love to work too, but I mean, you must have a goal. Like, what's your goal for improving the quality of life for the people of Illinois, as the most powerful politician in the state. And he looked at me like I had three heads and he laughed and he said, Bruce, I got no goal like that. I don't even think about that. I said, really what so? And he said, Bruce, I do two things. I manage power and I make money from managing power. And I said, uh, I didn't know what to say. I sorta choked on my egg a little bit. And then I was like, okay, uh, like I got that. And boy, has he ever been successful in accomplishing his goals. I mean, good grief.

(14:24): Rauner had supported both Democratic and Republican candidates as a donor, but his politics lean to the right. He grew increasingly frustrated with political corruption in Illinois and the gridlock in Springfield. So he decided to run for governor. And in 2014 he became the Republican Party's nominee. Even though Illinois had trended solidly Democratic in recent years, Rauner was able to narrowly defeat the incumbent Pat Quinn. That's the same Pat Quinn who launched a cutback amendment drive Madigan despised years ago. And even though they were both Democrats, Quinn and Madigan battled mightily during Quinn's time as governor. Well, it was very hard.

(15:02): I think anybody would tell you that. Probably Mike Madigan would say that. Uh, he's, you know, doesn't yield easily. He and I disagreed on many, many things, especially on direct democracy and on ideas about ethics and reform. He wasn't really interested in my ideas.

(15:21): When Rauner took over as governor, he didn't find Madigan any easier to deal with. The two went toe to toe on everything from budgets to workers' compensation reform to public sector unions. The battles between Rauner and Madigan were daily front-page news, and they created a legislative and budgetary stalemate for months. State workers were furloughed. Social service providers went unpaid as the two battled for control over the budget. Their fight culminated in a dramatic scene on the floor of the Illinois House. Rauner had vetoed a key bill that Madigan supported. Madigan was now trying to get the legislature to vote to override Rauner's veto. It required a vote from three-fifths of the House to succeed. Everyone knew the vote would be close. Again, Bruce Rauner.

(16:06): I was able to get one legislator to stay away when I vetoed a spending bill that was going to crush taxpayers in Illinois. I vetoed the bill. Madigan has a super majority, he was going to beat me. I convinced that legislator to stay at the, uh, at the, uh, the US Open tennis tournament in New York and not show up for the, um, the veto override. Uh, we beat him. My veto stood and he had a super majority. He was apoplectic. He was furious. I've never seen him so pissed. And he was like, and what did he do? He brought President Obama, a sitting United States president back to Chicago to campaign in a primary for a state legislative seat. That has never happened in US history. It shows the muscle that Madigan has to get a sitting US President to come back and campaign on behalf of one of Madigan's people so that he could knock out one of his opponents. It's extraordinary.

(17:01): It was a bunch of bull crap.

(17:03): The state representative who stayed away, Democrat Ken Dunkin.

(17:07): Every single person knows that Mike Madigan could suspend the rules, or he could play by the rules. Leaders or people who are in charge of a mob or a gang or legislative body for that matter, they're going to do everything that they can to set precedent for the good guys and the bad guys. And I was one of those individuals who happen to think independently, not Republican, not Democrat, but really for the best interest of the state, because when Mike Madigan was in place, it was nothing about anything about the citizens by and large. There were some exceptions, of course, but it was about what Mike Madigan wanted. There was not about me not being somewhere. It was about Mike Madigan seizing, an uh, me, presenting an opportunity for him to seize and take advantage of and create a narrative that he wanted to address really through Governor Bruce Rauner.

(18:04): I was merely the pawn. Prior to Obama getting involved in a local statehouse race. There was legislation that moved through the House, and it passed, that said, we're going to grant $100 million to the Barack Obama Library or Obama Center. That's legislative fact. And so I had to believe that a sitting president of the most powerful nation in the world, getting involved in a race where there are 118 members that had to be something additional that incentivized him to get into a mere race of someone who played basketball with someone who served in the, in the legislature with, and someone who had visited the White House several times with him sitting as the president. I wasn't in the room or what catapults him, Barack Obama, to support someone that he had never even met. But Mike Madigan again is known for creating a narrative and he'll use anything and anybody to push his agenda and, or play people against themselves to his advantage.

(19:19): In the end, both Dunkin and Rauner failed to win re-election. They may have won the legislative battle to stop the veto override, but they lost the war. Again, the Illinois Policy Institute's John Tillman.

(19:32): The thing that Governor Rauner misunderstood about that election. When he won in 2014 was people weren't voting for him. They were rejecting Governor Quinn and his governance. And so I call that a repudiation election. And so when you become governor after repudiation election, your job is to get people to support your agenda and go out and sell. And instead, what Governor Rauner did is he took on Madigan and the unions and all their power directly head-on instead of finding ways on the margins to start winning people over. And I thought that was a strategic error, which of course I, to be clear, I said at the time, and have said ever since. I didn't say this after the fact. Uh, the second mistake that Madigan made was Madigan in his power-hungry ways, and he could not get past his joy. He wanted to destroy, uh, Governor Rauner.

(20:19): Many criticized Rauner for not finding a way to work more effectively with Madigan. Others simply felt the political newcomer was outplayed by the political veteran. But Bruce Rauner doesn't see it that way.

(20:30): So I got to tell you, Justin, I've been approached by more than a dozen Democratic legislators who were in office while I was governor. Some are still in office, some aren't. Who come to me and said, Bruce, we should have, we should have just done a deal with you. Everything would be so much better, but Mike wouldn't, you know, Speaker wouldn't do it. He just would not negotiate anything. And it's it's, it's so tragic. This was good government. Did Mike Madigan want good government? Hell no. He wanted the political power. And he wanted me gone. And he succeeded. By blocking me out, they could say, well, he was a do-nothing, governor, he should be tossed. In the end we took each other out. I defined him as a crook. And that's how they were able to defeat the property, the income tax hike. And the Democrats said, we can't let you there, Mike, Mike you're too much of a foil. You got to go. They tossed him because of my definition of him. They tossed me cause I couldn't get stuff done because he wouldn't let me. We took each other out.

(21:29): But the cost to the Rauner-Madigan battles, isn't just measured in the career fortunes of two powerful politicians. It's measured in the toll it took on the state and its citizens. By the time Rauner left office in 2018, Illinois' unpaid pension deficit had ballooned to record high and the state's bond rating dipped to record lows and Illinois ranked near the bottom of all 50 states in several financial categories. The problems weren't all Rauner's fault. They'd been mounting for decades across multiple administrations, but neither Governor Rauner nor Governor Quinn before him could find a way to fix them. By the 2018 election more and more Illinoisans, including some Democrats were pinning the blame on the one constant in Illinois politics, Michael J. Madigan. Next time on "The Madigan Rule", the downfall, how state finances, political scandals, and the #MeToo Movement spelled the beginning of the end for Madigan.

(22:30): I was terrified. 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.

(22:45): The Madigan Rule is produced by me, Justin Kaufmann, with the Better Government Association. The Executive Producer, David Greising. Steve Edwards gets a big thanks for story consulting. Alex Sugihara did the music. To find out more about the BGA's investigative reporting and watchdog efforts go to bettergov.org.

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