A new era began in Illinois politics on Wednesday when Chris Welch won the race to replace Mike Madigan, a fellow Democrat, as speaker of the state House. Welch, whom the Chicago Tribune identifies as a Madigan ally, is the first African American to lead the chamber.
Madigan, who rose through the ranks of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political machine, was first elected to the legislature all the way back in 1970. Madigan was elevated to the speaker’s chair in 1983 and, apart from the two years the GOP was in power following the 1994 elections, he remained there ever since. In 2017, Madigan became the longest-serving state House speaker in American history.
Governors from both parties acknowledged over the decades, often to their detriment, that Madigan was the most powerful figure in state politics. Madigan also wielded plenty of influence outside the chamber: He has served as chair of the state Democratic Party since 1998, and his daughter, Lisa Madigan, was elected state attorney general in 2002.
The speaker’s long stint may have blocked Lisa Madigan’s further rise, though. The younger Madigan was mentioned as a potential candidate for Senate or governor for years, and for a time it seemed likely she’d challenge Gov. Pat Quinn in the 2014 Democratic primary. She decided not to enter that race, however, saying she felt it would be bad for the governor and speaker to come from the same family. Lisa Madigan ended up retiring in 2018, while her father sought and won another term as leader of the state House.
Mike Madigan also was one of the Illinois GOP’s favorite targets during his decades-long tenure. Republican Bruce Rauner spent his four years as governor blaming the speaker for the state’s many financial difficulties. The unpopular Rauner even argued in 2018 that voters should re-elect him because a victory for his actual Democratic opponent, J.B. Pritzker, would effectively put Madigan in charge of the state.
Rauner badly lost, but Team Red had success two years later in the 13th Congressional District with a campaign that tied Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, a Democrat who had never so much as held office, to Madigan. Last year, the speaker was also blamed for the failure of a constitutional amendment pushed by Pritzker that would have reformed the state’s tax system: The Chicago Tribune’s Rick Pearson said afterwards, “Opponents, largely funded by business interests, continually raised the question of ‘do you trust politicians with more tax money?’”
Madigan himself, though, appeared to have a firm hold over the speakership despite intra-party complains about him, including over his handling of sexual harassment allegations against two of his top aides. Progressives also resented the speaker for what the Pearson described as an “autocratic style which lets members advance only a few of their bills per session.”
But things took an especially bad turn for Madigan last summer when the utility giant Commonwealth Edison admitted to federal prosecutors that it had given $1.3 million to his confidants in jobs and contracts in order to influence legislation. Madigan himself has not been charged and denied knowledge of the scheme, but one of his associates was indicted in December.
Madigan retained plenty of support to the end, including from labor groups and Democrats who feared they’d struggle at the ballot box without “The Program,” his vast fundraising and volunteer network. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, though, called for him to step down, and Madigan struggled to win enough support from fellow Democratic representatives to stay on as speaker. On Sunday, Madigan secured just 51 out of 73 votes in an internal party caucus, which was nine short of the number he’d need to be re-elected speaker of the 118-member chamber.
Madigan announced the following day that he was suspending his campaign for speaker, though he said he wasn’t dropping out. Madigan, as Politico reported, wanted to keep his options open in case another Democrat couldn’t win enough votes to replace him. That’s not how things went, however: Welch entered the race afterwards and put together a large enough coalition on Wednesday to secure the speakership.