Editorial: Madigan's departure does not by itself signal 'new day,' but suggests one is possible

  • Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, testifies during an Illinois House committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010. Madigan said the position of lieutenant governor is unnecessary. Afterwards the House committee approved allowing voters to decide whether to abolish the state's No. 2 post.

    Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, testifies during an Illinois House committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010. Madigan said the position of lieutenant governor is unnecessary. Afterwards the House committee approved allowing voters to decide whether to abolish the state's No. 2 post.

 
Updated 2/21/2021 11:46 AM

For those of us who have long advocated for an end to the Michael Madigan era, the former House speaker's announcement Thursday that he would retire this month from the seat to which his Chicago-district constituents elected him only last November cannot help but stir some degree of satisfaction and relief.

Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, said Madigan's resignation inaugurates a "new day" in Illinois government. The conservative Illinois Policy Institute, one of Madigan's most persistent and long-running critics, declared that his legacy would be one of population loss, corruption and constantly escalating debt.

 

It is, indeed, impossible to separate the longest-serving state House leader in the nation's history from the raw data that accompanies his tenure, though it cannot be overlooked that to some constituencies, he was an unqualified hero.

The Illinois AFL-CIO, for one, credited Madigan for a "historic legislative career of public service" and praised his "unprecedented influence on our legislative process" that "put the interests of working men and women first, even under dire circumstances and serious threats."

"He knew how to bring people together behind the most important initiatives to move our state forward," reads a statement co-signed by state AFL-CIO President Tim Drea and Secretary Treasurer Pat Devany, "while making the right political calculations to ensure his majorities grew and never lost touch with the will of the people."

The key phrase in that tribute is "political calculations," for if there is one view of Madigan that political adversaries and allies alike share, it is his talent for manipulating the system to achieve his goals.

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Perhaps the ultimate analysis of his 36-year career as Illinois House speaker will center on the question of whether his reputed devotion to the interests of working people was worth the cost to the state's ethics, legislative structure and fiscal health.

We cannot and do not wish to send Rep. Madigan off to his retirement amid a storm of ill feelings. We in fact have some reservations about how well the legislature will perform, at least in the short term, now that it appears to be freed from his iron grip. But we must acknowledge that his departure allows Illinois government to begin striving toward a more equitable balance between the interests Madigan presumed to represent and the costs that unquestionably burdened the state.

It bears observing that one reason Madigan was able to amass the level of power and influence he held was the fact that rank-and-file lawmakers were happy to sit back and let him do the hard work of making those "political calculations" and putting them in motion. If there is a message for them in his departure, it is that they must not again relinquish so much authority to a single person.

As we said in an editorial just last Sunday, recent changes in House rules -- changes that would never have occurred had Madigan remained speaker -- are a start in the right direction. With him officially out of the picture altogether, perhaps lawmakers will more expeditiously pursue additional reforms that must be enacted if we are to truly reach that "new day" that Rep. Durkin and others, we included, long for.

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