SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The start of lame duck session was anything but.
The next five days in the socially distant state legislature could determine how well Illinois lawmakers — and law enforcement officers — can police themselves, and ultimately could decide the fate of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political career.
The House of Representatives took the first procedural steps on Friday toward advancing police reform measures to rein in bad cops, limit no-knock warrants, weaken police union protections, strengthen oversight and accountability when an officer uses force, and ban the practice of holding a suspect in custody who can’t afford bail.
“One’s wealth is not an accurate indicator of one’s threat to a community,” Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat who has long supported ending cash bail, said on Friday night.
The push to reform police powers faces opposition from reluctant Republicans who feel matters of crime and safety deserve more than a hurried debate in a short window.
“These are things that sometimes take an entire session to negotiate, or sometimes years to negotiate, and somehow we’re trying to get it done in five days,” Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield) said Friday morning. “I think that’s a terrible way to do business.”
Illinois Democrats have more than enough votes, and more than enough reasons, to take action now.
“For too long, we’ve seen young men and women die during unfortunate incidents with law enforcement,” Rep. Kam Buckner said. The Democrat, whose district stretches from Chicago’s downtown to southside, has been a vocal critic of excessive police force and an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform.
House Republican Darren Bailey (R-Louisville), who will swear in as a new state senator next Wednesday, echoed the criticism from some police unions and described the police reform package as “a dismantling of the law in the state of Illinois.”
“I think that’s dramatic,” Buckner responded. “I think that’s overly dramatic.”
The details are still being ironed out in House and Senate committees before the legislature debates them, but the issues are front and center because Speaker Madigan put them there.
Madigan, who is facing his first public challenge of his career in this month’s race for Speaker, wholly embraced the agenda of the Legislative Black Caucus after the summer of social unrest that followed the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. In turn, the Legislative Black Caucus endorsed Madigan’s bid for Speaker.
“I think these are games by Mike Madigan to stay in control,” Bailey said.
The Latinx Caucus also backed Madigan, while the Women’s Caucus has not issued an endorsement. However, 19 other House Democrats, mostly from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, have already stated publicly they won’t back Madigan any longer.
“I think the 19 are pretty firm in their resolve,” Cassidy said. “Obviously, it’s 19 individuals who have their own decision making frameworks and processes, but I think that everyone is pretty firm in their position.”
“He doesn’t have 60 votes, and hopefully, he will step aside or take his name out so that we can have an election of ideas and a selection of a new leader,” Rep. Stephanie Kifowit said Friday. The retired Marine from Oswego was the first House Democrat to publicly announce a campaign to challenge Madigan for Speaker.
“I think a lot of people are undecided,” she said. “This isn’t a one-and-done. This is like a boxing match. This is like a baseball game. There’s going to be rounds and innings, and many rounds and innings, until it gets worked out.”
Rep. Jonathan Carroll, a Northbrook Democrat, said, “We don’t have a candidate that we all 19 agree upon. The one thing we agree upon: it’s time for new leadership.”
Undeterred by his opposition, Madigan methodically maneuvered through the process and continued to persistently persuade his colleagues to support him. In a Friday night candidates’ forum organized by downstate and moderate Democrats, Madigan offered to relax his grip on political power if members let him stay in his role.
Throughout his record run as Speaker, Madigan has kept careful watch over his most vulnerable members in swing districts and “protected” them from taking tough votes on controversial issues. At times, progressive members felt Madigan’s micro-management cost them key votes and sank their policy endeavors. Now that he faces near-defeat, the 78-year-old speaker is listening to his younger members who would rather see him exercise power than merely preserve it.
According to members who listened to Madigan’s pitch Friday night, he also offered them more input and control in interviewing and hiring their own staffers, and pledged a more collaborative style of leadership.
His challengers, Reps. Kifowit, Ann Williams (D-Chicago), and Kathleen Willis (D-Addison), offered a variety of changes in the House rules and in the way members could move their bills through committees, and laid out their strategies to raise campaign funds in ways that benefit more members.
Willis, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, highlighted her experience on Madigan’s leadership team, though the Speaker noted it pales in comparison with his own.
The speaker first swore the oath of office as a state legislator 50 years ago next Wednesday. On his 50th anniversary in Springfield, Madigan may find out if he has enough votes to continue in his role any longer.
“You’re replacing Phil Jackson,” one House Democrat said after listening to the candidates forum. “The guy works 18 hour days. Whoever replaces Madigan is going to have to share a lot of responsibilities.”
During the days leading up to Wednesday’s scheduled vote for Speaker, Madigan’s office has effectively shielded his members from any meaningful interactions with the media. Despite written appeals from the statehouse press corps, Madigan’s staff refused to budge and carried out a plan to restrict credentialed media from accessing the perimeter of the Bank of Springfield Center, a 40,000 square foot arena where lawmakers are scattered out to sit six feet apart.
Citing vague guidance from unnamed health officials, Madigan’s office ordered state police to escort a limited number of reporters to a designated corner of the mezzanine, hundreds of feet away from the action on the floor.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) stood to the floor and urged Madigan to reconsider the unnecessary restrictions on the press.
“The one group that is in the proper place to make sure our public is aware of what we’re doing, it’s our press corps,” Durkin said. “So I am going to make a request to the Speaker to allow more than five members — for all members of the press corps — to have access to this building over the next many days as we are in session. And I hope members of the General Assembly will join me in that request.”
The Illinois Senate kicks off its lame duck session on Saturday. In addition to police reform, the statehouse could consider allowing remote voting on legislation during the pandemic, new ethics rules to clean up a culture of corruption, and Coronavirus relief measures to stabilize the state’s budget deficit.