Editorial: It can be denied no longer: Speaker Madigan must go
Federal prosecutors have not yet indicated whether they will indict the Illinois House speaker they dub "Public Official A" in documents filed with an explosive ComEd plea deal on Friday, but as far as the quality of Illinois government is concerned, they don't have to.
The suggestions of impropriety in those documents are so overwhelming that Michael J. Madigan, whether innocent or guilty of wrongdoing, cannot escape being a major distraction both to good government and to the hopes of the political party he leads. The Chicago Democrat has survived many a controversy and many a scandal in his 35 years as Illinois House speaker, but this one is unsurvivable.
This time, it is inevitable that Speaker Madigan must go.
Consider the implications just from the standpoint of the Democrats: Imagine Gov. J.B. Pritzker trying to pass a major graduated income tax initiative with Madigan at the helm? Imagine Sen. Tammy Duckworth seeking to win a vice presidential nod from Joe Biden while carrying the Madigan scandal around her neck? Imagine one more thing Democrats want to worry about defending in their efforts to keep Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten in vulnerable Congressional seats? Does even relatively safe Sen, Dick Durbin want to run with this as his campaign backdrop?
And that's just the politics. Consider the implications for the General Assembly: Imagine anything of significance getting done with the taint of this.
Pritzker on Friday declared himself "deeply troubled" and "furious" about the corruption case in which ComEd agreed to pay $200 million in fines and then placed a large if on the speaker's future.
"If," Pritzker said at a speech in Waukegan, "these allegations of wrongdoing by the speaker are true, there is no question that he will have betrayed the public trust, and he must resign."
With respect, Governor, that if is neither necessary nor relevant. The speaker's effectiveness is too deeply compromised.
His indifference to calls last year for urgent ethics reforms in the wake of several high-profile political investigations ought to be enough to demonstrate his tin ear to the public's demands for good government. Now, he is inarguably the contaminated focal point of discussion on all matters confronting the state, threatening any hope of reasoned discussion on every issue from coronavirus response to the state's gaping budget hole.
Madigan insists that any claims that he, personally, ever traded favors for jobs for his friends or "made a legislative decision with improper motives" are "unfounded." Even if that denial is true and the speaker is guilty of no legal infraction, the case laid out by the prosecutor against ComEd -- and said to be expanding to other major companies -- suggests he at the least must be guilty of woefully bad judgment in the selection of his close associates. To believe the denial would also require one to believe that Madigan must be guilty of dreadful incompetence in the oversight of his legislative duties.
He may not be, in the fabled political lexicon, a crook, but he is at least a ruinous centerpiece for public debate. The governor must know this. The legion of Democratic lawmakers who have cowered under Madigan, lo, these many decades surely must accept it now, too. Can they not see that their persistent toadyism reflects, in a different arena, the very cowardice of which rank-and-file Republicans are accused when it comes to reining in the excesses of President Donald Trump?
One, at least, does. Grayslake Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush issued a statement Friday pointedly critical of the management of Illinois politics.
"We can't allow this shameful behavior to continue -- especially from someone who has a lead role in both the General Assembly and throughout the state," she said. "The continuous ethics and legal violations have been swept under the rug for far too long."
Bravo for Sen. Bush. Bravo too to Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago. And to Democrat Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board. All had the backbone to join multiple Republicans in sharply abhorring the scandal.
That said, we regret that each has stopped short of specifically calling for the speaker's resignation just yet.
Illinois and the Democratic Party in Illinois need a new direction and a new vision.
To be sure, the state needs the legislative attention to ethics that Bush emphasized, but it also needs something more -- or rather something less. It needs Mike Madigan's departure and a replacement with the credibility to lead that reform.