There was no reason for Madigan to suspect it was over. After all, he had, throughout his decades-long career as Illinois’ most powerful political boss, weathered several scandals. When he was accused of influencing the admission process at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign to ensure that the children of favored families would get in, he simply refused to testify in the inquiry. Trustees and top administrators in the University took the fall. Madigan was left unscathed. When he was accused of messing with Metra’s hiring practices to ensure patronage positions for supporters, he just repeatedly claimed he did nothing wrong. Say it enough, eventually, people come to believe it. Five Metra board members resigned. Madigan was reelected unopposed. Even after the ComEd scandal initially broke, where the company’s top executive pleaded guilty to bribing “Public Official A”—who everyone knows is Madigan—it was not clear that Madigan would fall. As before, he performed his political magic show. Using his usual rhetorical sleight-of-hand, Madigan denied that he had broken the law without actually denying being involved with the bribery scheme. For the press, he is now and has always been nothing more than a humble public servant dedicated to serving the 27th District.
This time, it is different. The humiliating defeat of the Fair Tax amendment was a wake call for the state’s Democratic Party. Madigan’s ruthless attack on his political enemies has long made him a critical asset for the party. For centrist Democrats, even those not affiliated with the machine, Madigan was considered a necessary evil. As both Illinois Speaker of the House and chair of the state’s Democratic Party, Madigan ensured that the state legislature would not fall back into Republican hands as it did briefly in the 1990s. However, losing the vote on the Fair Tax amendment exposed Madigan as a liability. Political powerhouses in the state—such as Senators Dick Durban and Tammy Duckworth, Congressmember Mike Quigley, and Governor Pritzker—have signaled that it was time for new leadership.
The rejection of Madigan is for good reasons. Right now, Illinois’ financial crisis is the greatest threat the state faces. Given that context, the Fair Tax amendment should have easily passed. Still, the blinding ire that many Illinoisans feel toward Madigan meant that they were easily fouled by Ken Griffin’s anti-tax message. All Griffin had to do was is portray the amendment lurk as another one of Madigan’s shadowy plot. Fearful that raising taxes on the wealthy would empower Madigan, many working-class Illinoisans voted for the status quo, not realizing the status quo basically forces the state deeper into a fiscal pit of despair.
Amazingly enough, Madigan does have one ally who refuses to turn his back on him: Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter. The day after Michael McClain and ComEd’s ex-CEO Anne Pramaggiore were charged by federal prosecutors for bribing Madigan and his associates, Reiter told the Sun-Times “The people that you’ve worked with to help make everyday peoples’ lives better — you can’t just walk away from that situation. Especially in a situation like this where there’s this appearance that’s been created that may, in fact, be divorced from actual reality… We have one of the strongest prevailing wages in the country. We have card-check neutrality in the public sector. … We have some of the strongest laws to protect everyday working people, which is one of the reasons why we have such a strong working class.” Reiter followed up the statement with a promise that organized labor would whip votes for Madigan to ensure that he maintained his position as Illinois Speaker of the House.
The statement was embarrassing on multiple levels. Madigan could face federal charges and lost a critical referendum on tax reform. He is not worth saving. At this point, any reasonable observer can see that organized labor dedication to shoring up support for Madigan feeds into the rightwing narrative that all unions in the state are just extensions of the political machine and organized crime. For what purpose could coming to Madigan’s side now be justified?
If there is a situation that is “divorced from actual reality,” it is Reiter’s delusion that Madigan is somehow a champion of Illinois’ working-class. Despite Reiter’s assertion that Illinois has a “strong working class,” the reality is that organized labor’s power in the state is quite mediocre. Illinois’ union density is only 13.8%, essentially a little above the national average and far lower than national leaders such as Hawaii and New York, which have union density above 20%. Furthermore, at a time when nationally the popularity is sky-high, Illinois continues to experience a decade long decline in unionization. Madigan has essentially given the union movement crumbs, but Reiter seemed convinced that they are whole cakes.
More significantly than the unionization rate is how Madigan has used his power to stall legislation that better the lives of everyday people. During his second term, Pat Quinn pushed hard on the state legislature to increase Illinois’s minimum wage. Madigan, seeing no political advantage to an increase, dragged his feet on the measure. Eventually, in 2014, an advisory referendum was put on the ballot to raise the minimum wage in the state to $10.00/hour by 2015. It passed overwhelmingly, but during the same election, Governor Quinn lost to Bruce Rauner. Still, Governor Quinn wanted to use his lame-duck session to get a minimum wage increase through the legislature. Within Rauner as the incoming governor, the few months that he had before leaving office was the only period where any support to low-wage Illinoisans would be possible. For Madigan, though, an increase in the state’s minimum wage was not a priority. Under his watchful guidance as speaker, the legislation quietly died. In 2019, the Illinois legislature did pass a minimum wage increase. Illinoisans got their $10.00/hour, but in 2020, five years later than it would have if not for Madigan’s self-centered political maneuvering.
Even more galling for Reiter’s comments is how ComEd’s bribery scheme led to a rate structure that screws over everyday Illinoisans. Throughout the period that ComEd was engaging in bribery, the Illinois state legislature passed the Infrastructure Modernization Act. The Act allowed ComEd to spend $2.6 billion in infrastructure upgrades and recuperate its investments—all while making a comfortable margin for its shareholders—through rate hikes. An analysis of WBEZ found that during the years that the bribery scheme was active, energy customers in northern Illinois saw a 30% increase in their rates. It is highly unlikely that the Infrastructure Modernization Act would have passed if not for Madigan. Governor Quinn vetoed the legislation, and it was only through Madigan’s hustle that it was able to override the governor’s veto.
After the Fair Tax amendment failed, many wondered how it was possible that so many working-class voters could be easily swept up in Ken Griffin’s anti-tax demagoguery? It is a legitimate question. An equally fair question is why so many union leaders in Illinois are similarly swept up in the personality cult of Mike Madigan, believe that—despite his legacy of corruption and being a handmaiden for Illinois’ corporation—he is somehow legislating on behalf of working people?
Unfortunately, Bob Reiter’s desperate defense of Madigan shows how powerful this personality cult is. Decades of adulation for Mike Madigan have made several union leaders in Illinois sclerotic and out-of-touch with the working-class they claim to be fighting for. Instead of seeing Madigan’s corruption and concentration of power as a working-class issue—which anyone who looks at their wages and their energy rates can clearly see—Reiter and his ilk seem to believe that the union movement would be under serious threat if Madigan was gone. Supposedly, they defend him in the hope is that by shaking hands with the devil and demonstrating a willingness to accept trifles, that—somehow, magically—the working-class in the state will be more empowered: divorced from actual reality indeed Reiter, divorced from actual reality indeed.