Will Madigan indictment change Illinois politics? 'We've got a long way to go,' expert says

For decades as Illinois House speaker and then leader of the state's Democratic Party, Michael Madigan amassed millions of campaign dollars and created a massive network of political influence.

With his indictment on federal racketeering and bribery charges Wednesday, prosecutors allege he used that power and money to enrich himself and his close allies while manipulating almost every level of government in Illinois.

"It seems very, very unlikely that we will ever have a political figure like Mike Madigan ever again," said John Shaw, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. "It's hard to think that's likely to happen again in modern Illinois politics, largely because there's a lot more churning of elected officials and people willing to spend that many years, but also for a whole host of reasons."

Madigan wore many hats to accrue the level of power he attained since first being elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1970. In the wake of his downfall, Democrats have split many of his former duties. Emanuel "Chris" Welch is now the House speaker, and congresswoman Robin Kelly is the state party's chairwoman.

"Whether or not it prompts some type of significant change remains to be seen," said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield. "We made progress after (Rod) Blagojevich. We made progress after (George) Ryan. But dispersing corruption isn't eliminating corruption."

Redfield said legislators should work on campaign finance measures and lobbyist reforms to lower the risk of future misdeeds.

But Illinois is no stranger to political corruption. At one point in the not-too-distant past, two former governors were both inmates in federal prison - Ryan and Blagojevich.

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and former Chicago alderman, is the co-author of a book chronicling the state's history of political corruption titled "Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality."

"Since 1976, we've had 2,152 public officials from Illinois go to federal prison," Simpson said. "And 1,700 of those have been from the Chicago area, including suburbs and county governments."

More independent oversight and greater access to records would help keep public officials from using their offices for personal gain, Simpson suggests.

"We are making progress, but we've got a long way to go," he said.

Simpson cited efforts to eliminate patronage jobs and make such political maneuvers a federal crime. State and local governments have also created many more inspector general posts to monitor and investigate complaints of corruption.

And the state also has made a "civic engagement" course in high school a requirement for graduation. All this plays a role in fighting corruption, Simpson said.

"Madigan's indictment certainly tarnishes Illinois to the extent that the most dominant political figure of the last half century in this state is alleged to have run a racket from his office," Shaw said. "The notion that someone this powerful and important could be involved in this level of corruption is distressing to say the least."

The erosion of the public's trust is the biggest problem with political corruption scandals, Redfield said.

"It affects not only politicians who operate in this culture, but the general public to a certain extent then expects and tolerates it," he said.

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