War and politics: My story with Speaker Madigan

  • Jim Watson

    Jim Watson

By Jim Watson
Guest columnist
Posted12/31/2018 1:00 AM

What if I told you that there was a time in Illinois' not-too-distant past when Democrats and Republicans treated each other with respect? What if I told you there was a time when legislators reached across the aisle to help a colleague in need simply because it was the right thing to do? And, what if I told you that Speaker Michael Madigan was one of those who reached across that aisle?

Well, it's a true story. I know because I lived it. And after enduring all the ugliness of the 2018 campaign season, I think we could all use such a story -- if for no other reason than to restore our faith in the process. And just maybe, this story will help restore a sense of dignity to an institution that has known very little in recent years.


From 2001-2012, I served as a Republican member of the Illinois House of Representatives, representing a largely rural district in west-central Illinois. There was nothing outstanding about my tenure. I was one of 118 House members and, like most, did the best I could for my district and my state.

However, 2007 marked a tipping point. If you recall, 2006-2007 was a difficult time for the war in Iraq. As a Marine veteran of Operation Desert Storm, I decided to reenlist. To make a long story short, I found myself as a seated state representative on the verge of a nine-month deployment to Iraq. I had entered unchartered territory. There was no manual for taking a leave of absence from the General Assembly to serve in a war zone. As you can imagine, there were those who supported my decision and those who did not. I expected that.

What I did not expect, however, was the criticism I received from some in my own political party.

I was told that I needed to resign my House seat because Speaker Madigan would certainly target my district during my absence.

Naturally, I met with Speaker Madigan and, upon hearing my situation, he could not have been more helpful. We discussed the nature of my unit and our duty in Iraq's Anbar province. He listened and noted that this had not happened with a legislator since World War II. In the end, he assured me that my seat would not be targeted and, further, that his office was there to help me and my district however possible.

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And help he did. The speaker's staff provided input as our unit advised the Anbar Provincial Council on a host of constitutional and legislative issues.

Equally important, Speaker Madigan created an environment which allowed two Democrat legislators to service my district. Dan Beiser, a Democrat from Alton, toured Grafton during a flood and assured my constituents that their needs would be met even though I was in Iraq. To this day, I still have a picture in my office where our two districts meet near Grafton and Alton, along the Mississippi River. The photo was a gift from Rep. Beiser honoring my service and our friendship. For me, it serves as a reminder of his statesmanship.

Rep. Dan Reitz drove three hours to my district to hear directly from my constituents. When I returned to Jacksonville after my deployment, several constituents commented on how impressed they were to see that kind of cooperation between legislators from two different parties.

Deploying to a war zone is rather stressful. Deploying to a war zone and worrying about the needs of a legislative district simply adds to that stress factor. I will be forever grateful to the Republicans and Democrats who went above and beyond to help me and my district.


People often ask about lessons learned from my time in Iraq and in the Illinois General Assembly. Without hesitation, I point to the bipartisan help I received from my colleagues and specifically, House Speaker Madigan. My experience is a paradigm of what politics can be.

I share this story because millions of dollars were spent during the last campaign cycle vilifying a man in a manner hitherto unheard of. I worked with and against that man on various legislative issues. I found him to be tough but fair. Our disagreements were never personal. Rather, they were restricted to the merits of the issue. And in my time of need, a time of war, that man, Speaker Michael J. Madigan, extended a hand because it was the right thing to do.

The elections are over, and our state faces a mountain of issues. We need a true statesman who can work together to make difficult decisions. I hope this story serves as an example of what can be done.

And I hope my former colleagues find it within themselves to work in a bipartisan fashion to reach across the aisle because, based on my experiences, the Speaker will be willing to do so.

Jim Watson, of Jacksonville, represented the 97th District in the Illinois House of Representatives from 2001 through 2012. He is currently executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council.

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