It was an unceremonious exit. A few days before the election, former Illinois Speaker of the House, Mike Madigan, announced he was suspending his campaign to retain his position as Speaker. Two days later, he fell short of the sixty votes he needed to secure another term. Madigan’s reign as Speaker, a position he held for nearly four decades, was over. The position was handed over to Representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch. The first African American to hold the position in Illinois’ history. There was no jeering or cheering, nor any sense that this was an end of an era. Instead, the vote, and the whole affair, was matter of fact and rule-bound. A cold and unspoken arithmetic of power guided the decision. For decades, the Cook County Democrats recognized Madigan as a critical asset. Sure, he was a corrupt political boss, but he was their corrupt political boss, and his connections and political instincts were unrivaled. Today, though, Madigan is a liability. He is out of touch with the contemporary party, which has a legitimate progressive wing, and his waves of scandals, specifically the ComEd bribery case, has meant that no one outside of the 22nd District trusts him. The old-style Democratic political machine that he was so intrinsically a part of is falling apart.
In many ways, Madigan is an anachronism. Today, most politicians groom themselves for politics by becoming lawyers, entrepreneurs, or heads of non-profits. They spend years signaling to the political establishment that they can function within the white-collar class’s culture parameters. Madigan began his political career hauling waste for Chicago’s Street and Sanitations Department. Normally, this position is reserved for blue-collar workers, but Madigan got it through nepotism. His father—Michael Flynn Madigan—was a superintendent of the department and well-known political boss of the 13th Ward. He gave his son the job to connect him to the Chicago machine.
It was through the urging of his father that Madigan introduced himself to Mayor Richard J. Daley. The young Madigan immediately smote Daley. The boss-mayor appointed him to a summer job in the city’s Law Department between his first and second years of law school. There, Madigan became Daley’s protégé. He rapidly developed an understanding of the workings of Daley’s political machine. In 1969, after graduating from Loyola Law School, he became a ward committeeman under Daley. The position allowed him to independently hand out patronage jobs and get a feel for what it was like to be a political boss.
It is the relationship that Madigan had with Daley where he truly learned the meaning of being a political boss. In a 2009 interview, Madigan reflected on the truths of Daley’s mayoralty: “He was a boss… He had to be a boss. Everywhere in life, everywhere in the world, there has to be bosses.” The fatalism that “there has to be bosses” was a theme that Madigan carried through with him with the rest of his political career. For Madigan, since bosses were inevitable, the goal of any political career to eventually become one. Legislative achievements and good governances were secondary to the ability to rule over others for the sake of ruling.
Madigan was always suspicious of the idea that everyday people had the capacity for self-government. Elections were merely a means of seeking legitimatization, not actual participation. Instead, the tools of government should be left to the political bosses, who, by virtue of their own cynicism, are the ones who should be in charge. In his district, Madigan avoided free and fair elections at all costs. If patronage and corruption did not work, he would elevate sham candidates to confuse and misdirect voters. Anything outside of directly stuffing ballot boxes was game.
The idea that “everywhere in life, everywhere in the world, there has to be bosses” is, of course, not only authoritarian but also a uniquely capitalist concept. Indeed, the entire notion of a political “machine” is an attempt to bring the hierarchical workplace, specifically the drudgery of factory life, into halls of government. A political machine’s goal is to form private governments that embrace the individual pursuit of profit but in a public setting. For the political machine, the purpose of government is not to establish a sense of the common good but to facilitate quid pro quo arrangements as if in a market. Madigan fully endorsed this mission and with it all its contradictions.
Zealous in his pursuit of power, Madigan willingly accepted personal austerities if it meant he could gain an inch against his opponents. His lunch breaks were brief, often eating nothing more than an apple. His dinners were routine; he always at the same restaurant, at the same time, every evening. In many ways, his life was monastic. He was not known for having close friends or intimate relations and rarely went to social events unless it was a political fundraiser. “Whoever said ”no man is an island” never met Mike Madigan” the Chicago Tribune reported during Madigan’s first term as House Speaker. They were not wrong. If a relationship did not serve a political purpose, Madigan considered it wasteful and meaningless. For the boss, work always came first.
Simultaneously, his entire political career was based on finding opportunities for self-enrichment. While the ComEd bribery scandal remains the foremost incident, the most damning aspect of Madigan’s career is undoubtedly his utilization of Cook County’s property tax system. Throughout his long career as a state representative, Madigan maintained his position as a partner for Madigan & Getzendanner. The law firm specializes in property tax assessments for commercial and industrial enterprises. From 2011 to 2016, Madigan & Getzendanner appealed the property tax assessments of more than 4,200 parcels totaling more than $8.6 billion. Of those parcels, Madigan’s firm won a 20% reduction for their clients, greatly enriching his law firm while concurrently depriving Cook County of $1.7 billion. Undoubtedly, these patrons found it doubly advantageous to utilize not only a successful law but specifically the House Speaker’s law firm.
All this was known. While never proven in a court of law, Madigan’s corruption was widely acknowledged. The Cook County Democratic Party, which Madigan also controlled, turned a blind eye, or actively encouraged his double-dealing as part of its workings. Madigan probably assumed that, like his mentor Mayor Daley, he would reign as an Illinois state political boss until the day he died. Nevertheless, and quite ironically, the recent emergence of Democratic Party dominance has led to Madigan’s downfall. The Democratic Party’s electoral success created an opening for its progressive wing. They have relentlessly attacked its old machine. Mayor Harold Washington prematurely declared the machine “dead, dead, dead.” Not wanting to repeat his mistake, today’s progressives are not taking any chances and are advising to “kill, kill, kill” the old machine.
So far, the deaths have been fairly easy. In 2018, former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios was defeated at the polls. In the following year, former Edward “fast Eddy” Vrdolyak, pled guilty to tax invasion, the 14th Ward Alderperson Ed Burke’s was indicted for extortion and forced to give up his powerful position as the Chair of Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee. The Daley dynasty unofficially expired with the Bill Daley’s third-place finish during the mayoral race. Remnants of the old machine remain, but they are just remnants. With these allies gone, it was only a matter of time before Madigan went down too.
The fall of Mike Madigan is undoubtedly an end to an era in Illinois politics. More important, though, is the fall of Madiganism. No, bosses are not “everywhere in life, everywhere in the world.” The thought is psychotic. People can have genuine fraternity without someone ruling over them. Politics is not merely what you can do for yourself and setting up self-interested relationships based on quip pro quos. Ideally, politics is about people coming together in a participatory manner to form a sense of the common good. With the decline of the political machine, Illinoisans have a real chance of having a more participatory government. And, with the decline of Madiganism, they have a chance of actually achieving that greater sense of the common good.