Divided Democrats could end Madigan’s record run as speaker

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Speaker Michael Madigan’s political future is at an impasse.

A minority of House Democrats, 19 of them so far, have publicly opposed his re-election, which is scheduled for next month.

“The 19 of us that are currently public no’s have spoken pretty loudly, and we’re holding firm,” Representative Jonathan Carroll, a Northbrook Democrat, said on Tuesday. “As long as as we hold firm, and I don’t have any reason to believe that we’re not, those 60 votes aren’t there for him.”

Banded together, the holdouts have enough votes to deny Madigan the gavel; but, they lack the numbers to elect his replacement.

Flush with Madigan’s campaign cash, House Democrats lost ground in the 2020 election, but still hold a supermajority with 73 seats. The final campaign finance reports are still being reported, but early indications are that Madigan’s campaign committees outraised and outspent House Republicans four or fivefold. Still, some Democrats laid blame for electoral defeats of the graduated income tax and a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court at Madigan’s feet, citing his connection to the ongoing corruption investigation of the state’s largest power company funneling secret payments to Madigan’s friends disguised as lobbying payments or vendor contracts.

One lone candidate has so far emerged to challenge Madigan, but Representative Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) has not garnered anywhere near the support she would need to defeat him. To date, none of her colleagues have openly endorsed her bid for Speaker.

“By all accounts, it looks like the speaker has a large amount of votes,” House Representative Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) said. “And at this point, there isn’t anybody who has coalesced around an alternative candidate to the speaker.”

The standoff could pose the greatest challenge to Speaker Michael Madigan’s staying power, and to the loyalty of his supporters, that he’s ever seen; but only if a Democrat steps forward to oppose him.

“We need a candidate, and we need a candidate fairly soon,” Carroll said.

While battle lines are being drawn, the Speaker’s allies have come to his side, pledging their support for his re-election. Secretary of State Jesse White, the Legislative Black Caucus, the AFL-CIO, Chicago Federation of Labor, and several other organized labor groups have all endorsed Madigan.

“I plan to be a candidate for speaker,” Madigan said last month, refusing to bow to pressure to resign. “The decision on the next speaker of the Illinois House will be made at a caucus, after a full discussion of the issues facing our state and the qualifications of the candidates.”

In the absence of a viable challenger, the reform Democrats have grown anxious that Madigan could use parliamentary procedure or a portion of state law to maintain his power beyond the scheduled inauguration of the 102nd General Assembly.

According to the General Assembly Operations Act, “the Speaker of the House…shall be considered as holding continuing office until a successor is elected and qualified.”

Could that mean the Speaker would stay the Speaker if no other candidate won enough votes to dethrone him?

“It is a good question, and we are researching it,” Secretary of State Jesse White’s spokesman Dave Druker said on Tuesday. Again on Friday, Druker said attorneys in White’s office were “still reviewing” the matter.

The same state law says the Secretary of State shall preside over the House during the election of the new Speaker. But never before has Secretary White presided over an election where his ally has faced an open challenger.

Representative Carroll wondered “if there’s a loophole or something that he may or may not take advantage of.”

“We’re dealing with a person who knows these things inside and out,” Carroll said. “And he’s been in the statehouse longer than some members have even been alive.”

Some of the anti-Madigan Democrats have carefully pored over the law to evaluate all of Madigan’s possible moves, including a pause or delay in the election itself, which they fear might allow him to retain control of the gavel indefinitely.

“It said it would send a horrible message,” Carroll said. “It would send a message that we’re not legislating through democracy, we’re legislating through someone trying to be a dictator.”

“I have not heard that interpretation,” Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown said. “History would tell you,” he said. Brown referenced the contentious 1975 election of the Speaker where the selection process was “basically all that happened. I don’t think there was any legislative activity.”

Archived transcripts from that House floor debate show a similar standoff between Democrats who held a supermajority but were bitterly divided and could not agree on whether to elect a decorated military veteran Clyde Choate from downstate Anna, Illinois, or Bill Redmond from DuPage County.

At the time, in January of 1975, Representative Michael Madigan had just four years under his belt as a state legislator, and though he held no leadership title, he rose to the floor to nominate to cast his enthusiastic and unwavering support behind Choate for Speaker. His nomination foreshadowed his stubborn character and willingness to dig in and outlast his opponents to get what he wanted.

“I intend to vote for Clyde Choate on the first ballot,” Madigan said on January 8th, 1975. “I intend to vote for Clyde Choate on the last ballot that we take today. I don’t care how long we are going to stay here. I don’t care if we finish today, tomorrow, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I will be here and I will vote for Clyde Choate.”

Mike Lawrence was a young statehouse reporter watching from the press box, and noted a similarity between then and now:

“A group of reformers in the House, House Democratic caucus, decided that they would block Choate,” Lawrence recalled. “So even though Choate had a majority of the caucus, he had [Chicago Mayor Richard J.] Daley behind him, there were enough holdouts that Choate couldn’t get there.”

It took nearly two full weeks and 93 rounds of balloting before Democrats finally had elected their new Speaker.

“Eventually it got settled when you had seven Republicans come over and vote for Redmond,” Lawrence said.

But Madigan was among them. He ultimately betrayed his promise to vote for Choate, and Redmond rewarded his flip-flop by appointing Madigan to his first-ever post in Democratic House Leadership.

“He entered the Democratic leadership as an Assistant Majority Leader when Bill Redmond was elected speaker,” Lawrence said. “So if Madigan does not prevail in his bid for speaker this time, and there is a battle that results — a marathon battle because he can’t get the majority of votes — it would be kind of a fascinating bookend, because he went into the leadership right after that marathon battle in 1975, and he may be done as speaker with a marathon battle this time.”

46 years after he traded his leader’s power for his own, Madigan’s fate rests in the hands of rank-and-file Democrats who have pledged their vote to him.

“He’s patient and he’s disciplined, and I still think he’s got a tough road to go here to stay in that position,” Lawrence said. “But Madigan through the years has had a mystique that he can outfox just about anyone in that building. And so I’ll join those who say that you can’t rule out that he’ll prevail. But I think the odds are very long.”

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