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updated: 5/19/2014 5:23 PM

Michael Madigan leader tested anew

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  • Reporters surround House Speaker Michael Madigan after he testified last week in a committee hearing at the state Capitol in Springfield. Madigan, also the state Democratic Party chairman, has an arsenal of carrots and sticks at his disposal.

      Reporters surround House Speaker Michael Madigan after he testified last week in a committee hearing at the state Capitol in Springfield. Madigan, also the state Democratic Party chairman, has an arsenal of carrots and sticks at his disposal.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- On a golden plaque in the state Capitol that commemorates Illinois' long history of House speakers, one name takes up three entire columns: Michael Madigan.

Now approaching 30 years in control of the deliberative body, the 72-year-old Chicago Democrat is the longest-serving current House speaker in the country by nearly a decade and among the longest-serving in the U.S. ever. His tenure was interrupted for only two years, when Republicans seized control in the mid-1990s.

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No stranger to the challenge of piecing together votes for unpopular legislation while protecting vulnerable members of his Democratic majority, Madigan faces a major test this election year as he works to persuade reluctant members to support an extension of an income tax increase his party promised would be temporary three years ago.

What makes the stakes particularly high is that the tax extension is a priority for Gov. Pat Quinn, a fellow Democrat locked in one of the more intense governor's battles in the nation. His opponent, Republican venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, hopes to become the first Illinois GOP governor in more than a decade.

For Madigan, equally important is helping his members win and preserving the strength of the majority that he controls -- in this case, a veto-proof but not always reliable supermajority of just one vote, which could come in handy if Rauner is victorious in the fall.

With just two weeks left in the legislature's spring session, Madigan is on the spot to deploy all of his considerable tools, from access to the $5 million in his campaign war chests to the more subtle methods of leverage he has honed over the decades. But he also knows which caucus members from whom he can't ask too much without losing them come the vote in November.

"We're not in the business of issuing threats," said Madigan last week, typically coy but flashing a smile while describing his conversations with members. "We talk in terms of their view of what the state should be, what the state should be doing for its citizens. They're all policy orientated conversations, and we really enjoy them."

In recent days, Madigan has conceded that his House Democrats do not have the votes for the tax extension, though their Senate counterparts do. By last count, Madigan was still about 20 votes short of the 60 needed, with half a dozen members facing difficult re-election bids and others having pledged to oppose making the tax hike permanent.

The income tax hike is costing a typical Illinois taxpayer $1,100 this year. Without extending it, Democrats warn, the state will face an estimated $1.8 billion budget shortfall, while Republicans argue that the state just needs to stop spending too much.

A protégé of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley when he entered the legislature 43 years ago, Madigan, also the state Democratic Party chairman, has an arsenal of carrots and sticks at his disposal. Key is his control of four separate campaign funds, from which he can funnel thousands of dollars into members' re-election efforts.

One lawmaker who has benefited is Rep. Michelle Mussman of Schaumburg, who received more than $400,000 from Madigan for a tough campaign in 2010 and another $140,000 in 2012. She said her community would like the tax end but says she believes the state needs the added money.

"He makes it clear it's my decision," Mussman said.

The speaker has the power to push or stall a member's favored piece of legislation. He can turn on and off a member's access to his office and his strategists. And his less direct influence was seen recently at a Chicago regional public transit agency, where it was revealed he had sought and secured jobs for favored candidates over the years.

Madigan typically consults with members one on one in his Spartan Capitol office. But some lawmakers recalled receiving urgent phone calls over the Thanksgiving weekend, when Madigan needed votes for overhauling the state's underfunded employee pension systems, at the time considered the nation's worst. It ultimately passed with one vote to spare despite strong union opposition.

"They all get the message," said Bill Black, a former Republican deputy House leader. "I've watched people over the years: They've said, 'I'm not going to vote for (something)' and then two weeks later they've voted for it."

Statehouse veterans recall Madigan suddenly delivering votes that even he said he didn't have -- such as in 1988 when the state passed legislation to keep Major League Baseball's White Sox from leaving Chicago.

"He wouldn't be this successful as long as he has without having a mutual respect with his members," said Kurt Granberg, a former assistant majority leader under Madigan and now a lobbyist. "Mike's the best there is, but you can't ask him to do the impossible."

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