State legislators are like ants on a log. There are too many of them and they are too small, running around too fast to recognize as individuals, let alone track their efforts. Even if the log is in your backyard, why bother paying attention? Given the typical statehouse task—dragging bits of legislative leaf around—only the most dedicated political junkies even bother to try.

Occasionally, though, one leader plants himself in the center of the action long enough to offer a pathway not just to understand what’s going on in one colony, but also to illuminate the general calamity poisoning our increasingly toxic national political culture: the money, influence, rule bending, and self-dealing that deform government at every level.

The House That Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer
by Ray Long
University of Illinois Press, 312 pp.

Meet Michael J. Madigan, the tight-mouthed enigma at the center of the Illinois legislative anthill for more than a third of a century. Nicknamed “the Sphinx” for his expressionless silence and windblown longevity, Madigan was the last operative drive shaft from the old Daley Democratic machine—forged by Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s infamous mayor from 1955 to 1976— where clout was built on a system of mutual support: You vote the right way, and I’ll make sure your son gets a park district job. Throughout his career, Madigan was chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, committeeman of Chicago’s 13th Ward, and speaker of the Illinois House for 36 years, the longest-serving leader of any legislative body in American history.

Reviled by Republicans as “the center of all evil in state government,” Madigan endured while governors came and went. When Republican Jim Edgar became governor in 1991, Madigan didn’t return his phone calls for months. Madigan didn’t need him; he was served by a patronage army of 400 drones beholden to him for jobs, raises, and promotions, who would leap to campaign, knock on doors, and buttonhole commuters to sign petitions. (Or, in one infamous ploy, the opposite: hectoring residents of Madigan’s district to sign affidavits retracting their signatures on the nominating petitions of a 19-year-old who dared run against the state’s most powerful politician’s chosen alderman. The lad had no chance of winning, but so ruthlessly had the speaker’s operatives clawed signatures back that some 2,600 voters agreed to renounce signatures they had never given.)

Madigan was an accepted reality of life in Illinois, like the weather, or, more accurately, like God, a mysterious force in His Heaven, spinning works and mysteries.

Then it all changed.

First, the #MeToo revolution of 2018 rattled the Madigan organization, taking down his longtime chief of staff, Tim Mapes, and top aide, Kevin Quinn, amid accusations that Madigan didn’t do enough to stop them from sexually harassing their female colleagues. Sunlight started pouring through the cracks. Madigan gave the first deposition in his life. The U.S. Department of Justice’s federal investigation into Madigan’s alleged corruption circled nearer. For years, Madigan had used an electric utility company, Commonwealth Edison, as a “crony job service” that issued direct payments to Madigan’s allies, such as the $4,500 a month it funneled to the Cook County recorder of deeds, Ed Moody, for “consulting.” In return, Madigan advanced legislation that was favorable to the utility. He would also steer business to his private law firm, including clients who had business before the state.

These machinations had long been dirty secrets around Springfield, but now they were coming into full view. Illinois House Democrats, in November 2020, heard the hounds baying in the distance and balked at handing Madigan the speaker’s gavel—a once-unimaginable blasphemy. Forced to surrender the speakership, Madigan passed the baton over to his handpicked successor. Even after he resigned from the House, it seemed that Madigan might exit with his monumental dignity, secrets, and personal freedom intact.

Instead, in early March, the DOJ indicted Madigan on 22 federal counts of racketeering and bribery, accusing him of running “a criminal enterprise whose purpose was to enhance Madigan’s political power and financial well-being while also generating income for his political allies and associates.” The maximum sentence for the charges against him is 20 years in prison.

Madigan pleaded not guilty.

Did Madigan, 79, finally slip up in his senescence? Did he become careless, or just have the bad luck to do the usual legislative horse trading into a federal wiretap? The question snakes through a highly readable new bookThe House That Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer, by Ray Long, himself a Springfield fixture, covering the Illinois state capital for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times (where we were colleagues), and elsewhere.

Long was on hand to notice the distinctive way Madigan held the speaker’s gavel when he assumed power in 1983. No percussive slams of his predecessors. Rather, he wrapped his fingers around the barrel and tapped the handle, quietly.

“This is a new era,” Madigan purred.

Not really. More like the same old era prettied up to pass through the porous barrier of ethics laws. Creativity was required. Madigan couldn’t just hand out government jobs to reward his pals. That wasn’t done openly anymore. So ComEd would do it for him, allegedly. Madigan got loyalists everything from work as meter readers and summer internships to a seat on the utility’s board.

Long presents the central question that legislators and lobbyists alike struggled with: “What does the speaker think?” While neither Long nor his readers have ESP, we can surmise what Madigan thought by what he did.

Three main currents: First, Madigan considered Chicago crucial, for its own right and as the economic engine that drives Illinois. He thwarted efforts to strip control of O’Hare and Midway airports from Chicago and give it to a regional authority and kept Illinois tax dollars flowing to the Windy City. While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that Chicago would have become Detroit or Cleveland without him, the fact is, it didn’t, and Madigan helped.

Second, he thought the legislature should be its own independent, well-disciplined power, coequal to the executive branch and the courts. While some legislative bodies become rubber stamps—hello, Chicago City Council—the legislature mattered under Madigan.

Finally, he believed that Illinois should be reserved exclusively for the use and enjoyment of the Democratic Party. Indeed, the state became a blue island in a sea of red, jammed between Indiana, the Mississippi of the Midwest; Missouri, where Donald Trump beat Joe Biden by 15 points; Iowa, which has more cattle than people; and Wisconsin, where Scott Walker’s brand of anti-union revanchism found alarming success.

This was done, in part, by “extreme” gerrymandering. Madigan redrew the state maps in 1981, 2001, and 2011. For all the horror that Dems rightly feel about current GOP efforts to undermine the mechanics of voting, no ballot limitations surpass the feats of creative cartography carving safe havens for Democrats and, when absolutely necessary, ghettos where Republican voters can have their say.

Even after the threat to our elections was made all too clear, Illinois Democrats carried on in October, dividing the state into 13 strongly Democratic districts, three strongly Republican seats, and just one highly competitive district.

Beside the rank hypocrisy, there is another cost, laid out in perhaps the most reverberating passage in Long’s book, when Barack Obama, who served as a state senator alongside Madigan, travels to Springfield in 2016 to warn how gerrymandering—fewer than 10 percent of House districts nationwide are competitive—is dangerous to democracy. When the districts become less competitive between Democrats and Republicans, the primaries gain more currency, where turnout is lower and extremist candidates can take root. As a consequence, Obama said, “our debates move away from the middle, where most Americans are, toward the far ends of the spectrum, and that polarizes us further.”

Not all of Long’s book echoes with such significance. There is much on raising state taxes and grappling with the Land of Lincoln’s pension crisis, complex knots of alliances untangled, and motivations parsed.

A few chapters are set pieces, capturing the vicissitudes of Illinois politics. There is the drama of June 30, 1988, as Republican Governor Jim Thompson joins Madigan to try to fund a new ballpark for the White Sox when the team is all but on a plane to Florida. The deed had to be done before midnight, when a change in the legislature’s makeup would doom the effort. But Madigan “made time stand still”—literally. He stopped the clock at mid- night so that he and Thompson could twist arms while opponents sang that “Na na na na / Na na na na / Hey, hey-ey, goodbye” song that Sox fans use to jeer opposing pitchers off the field.

The episode is so much fun, with that near-biblical stopping of the sun, that it’s possible to overlook—puff away the obfuscating fog of fandom—that government officials were bending the law to put public money into the pockets of a private business.

Despite these moments of drama, at the end of Long’s book the Sphinx remains a cypher. Does he have friends? Hobbies? An interior life? Long never bothers to wonder. Robert Caro he is not. The best Long can do is observe that Madigan “put winning above ideology. He demanded fanatical loyalty and got it. He outworked, outmaneuvered, and outlasted whoever got in his way.”

For so long, it seemed like forever. And then it was over—except, of course, for the pending trial.

Which brings us back to the ant world, where Madigan traversed for so long, and where each colony has only one leader, served by an army of faceless workers. As humans, we’re supposed to do better in our social hierarchies. Indeed, in government, we’re supposed to never serve one man or woman but rather that noble and old-fashioned concept of the “common good.” But as Ray Long’s valuable new book points out, one savvy politician can still skew the entire system to their bidding, for years and years—so long as they have the ingenuity, and the enablers, to pull it off.

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Neil Steinberg is a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. His next book, Every Goddamn Day, based on his blog of the same name, is being published this fall by the University of Chicago Press.