Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan answers questions during a press conference on the final day of the 2021 spring legislative session. Credit: Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

It’s been about a week since former House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, once the most powerful Democrat in the state, was indicted by federal prosecutors on various corruption charges, and I’m like the proverbial flag blowing in the wind.

My attitude about him changes almost every hour. On the one hand—and this is going to be a very long hand…

Madigan’s treatment of Alaina Hampton was inexcusably abhorrent.

To refresh your memory, Hampton was once an exceedingly loyal and talented political aide to Madigan. He dispatched her to help run Juliana Stratton’s successful 2016 campaign against former state Rep. Ken Dunkin, who’d broken from the party to vote with Governor Rauner on a couple of matters.

Madigan desperately wanted to punish Dunkin and send a message to any Democrat who dared to play footsie with Rauner. Hampton worked alongside Alderman Marty Quinn—Madigan’s top political operative—in a campaign that was clearly the speaker’s top priority. That’s how important she was to the Madigan organization.

And yet, when Hampton sent Madigan a letter telling him another aide—Alderman Quinn’s brother, Kevin–was sexually harassing her, he didn’t even respond to her letter. Talk about cold-hearted indifference. In my opinion, he should have been ousted as speaker as soon as Hampton went public with the case in 2018.

Then there’s his property-tax law business—the one that eventually played a role in part of his indictment.

For years, he made good money appealing the taxes of wealthy downtown landlords. The assessment reductions he won them, lowered their taxes, meaning someone else’s property taxes went up. That’s how it works with property taxes: if someone pays less, someone else pays more.

Instead of fighting to reform our regressive property tax system, the state’s top Democrat was working the system to win tax breaks for the rich. How’s that for the party of the people?

Over the years, he occasionally used his clout to pass laws raising the homeowner tax exemption, but these were temporary measures.

I once asked Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios why Madigan didn’t make these homeowners tax breaks permanent.

Berrios chuckled and said, “If it’s only temporary, they have to come back to him in a couple of years.”

Just like that, the light went on. Madigan’s machinations weren’t about providing relief for beleaguered homeowners. It was about expanding his control.

He was a pragmatist, not a progressive. Obviously, what mattered most to him was holding on to his power. 

To do that he had to make sure his Democratic caucus members got re-elected. And to do that he had to first draw a legislative map that favored them and then make sure they didn’t have to vote for controversial measures that Republican challengers could use against them in an election.

Year after year, Madigan buried inequity-busting legislation, such as raising the minimum wage or raising taxes on the wealthy. The time never seemed right.

Over the years, lefty friends told me about making the trek to Madigan’s 13th Ward office near Midway Airport, hoping he’d back whatever bills they were advancing. They always had to come to him, of course—never the other way around.

They’d make their case for some progressive legislation, and he’d ask if they had the legislative votes lined up to get it passed.

Classic Madigan. He made the progressives line up the votes. He certainly didn’t line those votes up for them. And even if they had the votes, he still might bottle up their bills. Just to make them come back the next year. And the year after that…

It took the election of Governor JB Pritzker, a billionaire, to get the Fair Tax referendum on the ballot. That would have been like one of those property tax breaks Madigan won for his  downtown clients, only in reverse—raising income tax rates on the rich and lowering them on everyone else.

Another billionaire, Kenneth Griffin, spent about $50 million to beat the referendum. Madigan and most of his Democratic legislators were practically worthless in that endeavor. Still too pragmatic to take a chance on a proposal that could be used against them in the next election.

Oh, I could go on and on. And yet, on the other hand…

Madigan was adaptable. When he realized many voters were moving left on social issues, he moved with them, especially on reproductive rights and marriage equality and legalizing reefer.

On labor matters, he was the goalie. When newly elected governor Bruce Rauner set out to destroy collective bargaining rights in Illinois, Madigan blocked him.

No other state official,except comptroller Susana Mendoza, did as much to stifle Rauner’s anti-union agenda as Madigan. He rallied the Democratic legislators—gave them a purpose.

You think other leading Democrats were going to stand up to the Rauners and Griffins? Back then the leading Democrat in Chicago was Mayor Rahm, Rauner’s wine-drinking pal. Rauner helped Rahm make his first million. They shared an anti-union agenda, until Madigan made it uncomfortable for any Democrat, even Mayor Rahm, to openly support it.

Every union member in Illinois owes Madigan some gratitude for the role he played in the Rauner years.

All in all, I agree with state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who broke from Madigan before other Democrats dared. On my podcast, I asked Cassidy about Madigan’s legacy, and she said it’s not one way or the other: “all the best and worst things that have occurred in this state have his fingers on them.”

By the way, I’d like to thank Cassidy and her 18 Democratic legislative allies who forced Madigan to retire last year by refusing to vote for his re-election as speaker.

If he was still the speaker when the feds indicted him? Ouch. MAGA’s Griffin-funded commercials would be using Madigan as a hammer to pound every Democrat in the state. They’ll still try to do that—just might not be as effective with him out of office.

Madigan had to go. He’d overreached. But when I watch the Rauner/Griffin crowd chortle and cavort over his indictment, well, I definitely don’t feel like joining that celebration.