No one embodied what’s wrong with Illinois politics more than Michael Madigan. Political supremacy incarnate, he was unparalleled in his ability to remain on top and unscathed as governors and lawmakers came and went — on occasion, headed to jail.
Through the years, Illinois’ fiscal outlook bottomed out, a pension crisis metastasized, ethics reform languished — and yet Madigan endured.
Now Madigan, retired from lawmaking since early last year, stands indicted. The 79-year-old former House speaker who served in the General Assembly for five decades is accused of turning his state office into a criminal enterprise for his own personal gain. The racketeering charges against him allege a variety of extortion and bribery schemes stretching from 2011 to 2019 that yielded favors and cash for Madigan and his associates.
Madigan vowed to fight the charges. “I adamantly deny these accusations and look back proudly on my time as an elected official, serving the people of Illinois,” he said in a statement released Wednesday. He will have his day in court, beginning with his scheduled arraignment March 9 in U.S. District Court. Joining him will be longtime confidant, Michael McClain, a former state lawmaker and lobbyist who also faces charges in connection with an alleged bribery scheme involving Commonwealth Edison.
In a perfect world, Madigan’s indictment would signal the start of a new era in state politics, where there’s no quarter given to corrupt pols, where the public trust isn’t just a phrase in a campaign pamphlet, but an ideal guiding the service of every state officeholder. But, over the decades, Springfield has been anything but a guarantor of the public trust. If anything Illinois politics has shown itself to be a primer on how to poison the public trust.
We’ve been here before. An icon in state or Chicago politics gets indicted, and a clarion call for change emerges. And then after the dust settles, politicians scour for new ways to skirt whatever new anti-corruption initiatives have been enacted. There’s a reason why Illinois is ranked the third most corrupt state in the nation on a per capita basis. It’s not just that too many city and state politicians view public service as the means to inflate their bank accounts and oversize sense of entitlement. It’s that for far too long, Illinoisans have done nothing to prevent their actions.
Madigan is a prime example. For years, the Tribune, and in particular this editorial board, rang alarm bells about Madigan’s corrosive, damaging leadership in Springfield. We have written many times about the former House speaker’s failings — the bloated budgets he pushed through that sunk Illinois deeper into debt; a sexual harassment scandal involving one of his top lieutenants; and finally, the burgeoning ComEd scandal that ultimately played a major role in his indictment this week.
And yet, constituents of the Illinois House 22nd District kept sending Madigan back to the General Assembly. Illinois Democrats shrugged and allowed him to remain party king and kingmaker. He clung to his post as speaker until January 2021, when it became clear he didn’t have the votes to stay. For that, Illinoisans can thank what is known in Springfield circles as “The 19,” a group of House Democrats who stood up to business as usual and led the effort to end his reign as House speaker.
“We knew that our chamber, our state and our party deserved better leadership and the unfolding corruption scandal would only continue to erode public confidence,” the 19 House Democrats wrote in a statement released Wednesday.
Their stance was exceptional, but it also remains the exception in Springfield, where all too often ethics in politics is practiced only when convenient to do so. Lawmakers eviscerated the post of legislative inspector general, prompting the previous person in the job, Carol Pope, to label the office “a paper tiger.” In her resignation letter last summer, she wrote, “I thought I could be useful in improving the public’s view of the legislature and help bring about true ethics reform. Unfortunately, I have not been able to do so. This last legislative session demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority. The LIG has no real power to effect change or shine a light on ethics violations.”
Perhaps Illinoisans have been living with corruption in state politics for so long that they’ve become hopelessly inured to it. Indeed, Illinois’ seedy timeline of corruption stretches back decades. There’s Paul Powell, Illinois secretary of state from 1965 to 1970, who stashed in a shoe box wads of cash amassed from bribes he received in exchange for doling out sweetheart contracts to cronies. GOP Gov. George Ryan went to jail on federal corruption charges. So did Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor who was serving a 14-year prison term until Donald Trump commuted his sentence.
And on and on.
“I think we all shake our heads sometimes when we think that there’s another corruption case that’s happening,” U.S. Attorney John Lausch said in announcing the charges against Madigan. “And that’s why I define our problem as a very stubborn one.”
Stubborn, yes. Without remedy? No.
A whiff of serendipity accompanies the Madigan indictment. It’s likely to be fresh on the minds of Illinoisans when they head to the polls later this year to decide a raft of state races, from governor to House and Senate contests. Adherence to ethics reform should be a top prerequisite for voters deciding who to send to the state Capitol. No more pay-to-play, no more patronage. Opacity in state budgeting must become a thing of the past. We have a phrase for how Madigan and lawmakers in general have always viewed taxpayer dollars: “Other People’s Money.” They’ve had no qualms about sinking hard-earned taxpayer revenue into irresponsible over-borrowing that paid for pet projects.
Lawmakers and other officeholders who put themselves, their allies and their pocketbooks first and Illinoisans second should start packing their bags. The “public trust” isn’t some academic concept with little practical value. It’s real. It has to be earned. And it should be bestowed by voters onto politicians with a stern reminder:
You’re there in Springfield because we put you there. Start reforming, because we have the power to boot you out.
Join the discussion on Twitter @chitribopinions and on Facebook.
Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.