The Man Who Ran Illinois: Michael Madigan was the state's most powerful politician for more than three decades--until the feds caught up to him.

AuthorSteinberg, Neil

State legislators are like ants on a log. There are too many of them and they are too small, running around too fast to recognize as individuals, let alone track their efforts. Even if the log is in your backyard, why bother paying attention? Given the typical statehouse task--dragging bits of legislative leaf around--only the most dedicated political junkies even bother to try.

Occasionally, though, one leader plants himself in the center of the action long enough to offer a pathway not just to understand what's going on in one colony, but also to illuminate the general calamity poisoning our increasingly toxic national political culture: the money, influence, rule bending, and self-dealing that deform government at every level.

Meet Michael J. Madigan, the tight-mouthed enigma at the center of the Illinois legislative anthill for more than a third of a century. Nicknamed "the Sphinx" for his expressionless silence and windblown longevity, Madigan was the last operative drive shaft from the old Daley Democratic machine--forged by Richard J. Daley, Chicago's infamous mayor from 1955 to 1976--where clout was built on a system of mutual support: You vote the right way, and I'll make sure your son gets a park district job. Throughout his career, Madigan was chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, committeeman of Chicago's 13th Ward, and speaker of the Illinois House for 36 years, the longest-serving leader of any legislative body in American history.

Reviled by Republicans as "the center of all evil in state government," Madigan endured while governors came and went. When Republican Jim Edgar became governor in 1991, Madigan didn't return his phone calls for months. Madigan didn't need him; he was served by a patronage army of 400 drones beholden to him for jobs, raises, and promotions, who would leap to campaign, knock on doors, and buttonhole commuters to sign petitions. (Or, in one infamous ploy, the opposite: hectoring residents of Madigan's district to sign affidavits retracting their signatures on the nominating petitions of a 19-year-old who dared run against the state's most powerful politician's chosen alderman. The lad had no chance of winning, but so ruthlessly had the speaker's operatives clawed signatures back that some 2,600 voters agreed to renounce signatures they had never given.)

Madigan was an accepted reality of life in Illinois, like the weather, or, more accurately, like God, a mysterious force in His Heaven...

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