Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan’s first political splash had nothing to do with policy. It wasn’t a blueprint for a better state. It wasn’t middle-class jobs growth. It wasn’t a successful welfare program.
It was cartography.
Political mapmaking is how Madigan first took hold of a position he’s held for 31 of the past 33 years: speaker of the House. For comparison’s sake, the median age in the Land of Lincoln is 36, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While Madigan has endured a few legislative embarrassments over the years, he’s never lost the vote he desires most from House Democrats. His caucus has elected him speaker 16 times in a row.
Madigan’s grip over Illinois government did not begin with a bold vision. Not with lofty ideals. Not with a broad coalition.
It began with random chance, a will to power and a top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln.
In the wake of the 1980 census, an eight-member panel evenly split between Democrats and Republicans was charged with remapping Illinois’ legislative districts. The panel failed to come to an agreement. To break the gridlock, a ninth member of the panel was drawn at random. Out of Lincoln’s hat, no less.
The name drawn was that of former Democratic Gov. Sam Shapiro. That made Madigan, then House minority leader, mapmaker-in-chief. The panel was as good as his.
Many observers thought the 1980 census numbers would be a disaster for Illinois Democrats. A growing suburban population and an exodus from Chicago meant the Windy City was entitled to no more than 15.5 Illinois Senate seats and 31 Illinois House seats, according toresearch from NPR Illinois.
Not on Madigan’s watch.
His 1981 map gave Chicago 19 Senate seats and 37 House seats. Many of those districts overlapped with the suburbs, diluting Republican votes.
Years later, former state Rep. John O’Connell, D-Western Springs, told the Chicago Tribune he didn’t think any map could save his seat. But after O’Connell told Madigan he was worried, that all changed:
“He said, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘Two more census tracts [of heavy Democratic voting].’ He called back a couple days later and said, ‘You’ve got your two census tracts.’”
O’Connell went on to win his next three House races.
And that wasn’t all. When a “cutback” amendment ratified by voters in 1980 axed 59 seats from the Illinois House, Madigan’s map ensured 43 of those seats belonged to the GOP.
Madigan’s mapmaking would keep Democratic majorities in the Illinois House and Senate for the next decade. The Tribune heralded the arrival of a mastermind.
“He is a political wizard,” the paper’s editorial board wrote Dec. 18, 1981.
Two years later, House Democrats, many of whom would not have been in the Statehouse if not for Madigan’s map, elected him speaker.
The rest is history.
Just as Madigan’s ascent to power was devoid of any actual policies to better the state, so too has been his speakership. A transactional system based on fear, favoritism and absolute control reigns over House Democrats.
A 1989 story in the Tribune detailed how Madigan was able to concentrate his power so quickly.
When reporters asked one lawmaker what Madigan expected in return for funneling thousands of dollars into his campaign fund, the answer was simple: “I suspect Mike will ask me to vote for him for speaker.”
Tribune reporters also told the tale of former state Rep. Richard Mautino, D-Spring Valley, who dared vote against Madigan for speaker in 1987. He was immediately deprived of a vice chairmanship on a House committee. Two years later, he would vote for Madigan, who promptly made Mautino chairman of the House Insurance Committee.
“Power is like beauty,” Madigan once said. “Much of it is in the eye of the beholder.”
Rank-and-file Democrats should take that to heart. In January 2017, they’ll likely be voting for their speaker once again.
Will they have the guts to stand up for themselves? For Democratic ideals? For voters who are sick and tired of lacking real representation? Or will they simply be another footnote in Madigan’s legacy of gamesmanship?
Illinoisans should remember their elected officials do have that choice. And just like any other vote, lawmakers should be held responsible for its consequences.