Opinion: Madigan's Magical Mystery Machine
18 min read

Opinion: Madigan's Magical Mystery Machine

On January 13, 1971, a fresh-faced 28 year old lawyer named Mike Madigan assumed office as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, serving the 22nd district of Chicago's 13th Ward. He's still there.
Opinion: Madigan's Magical Mystery Machine

Some say that if you turn off the lights, light a candle, and whisper his name three times in a mirror, he’ll appear.

“Madigan...Madigan...Madigan...” Three syllables that dance three times three steps from the front to the back of the palate. From pursed lips to a tap of the tongue on the top to a soft growl at the back of the throat. I hope Nabokov would be proud.

It's further said that the wind will howl and the candle will snuff out and suddenly you feel it. His presence. If only it were that easy for every Illinois voter to gain an audience with the venerable Speaker.

I admit, that opening is a bit much. And yet, try as he has to avoid it, since Boss Daley[1] there's simply no other politician in this city and this state who has come as close as Mike Madigan has to turning himself into the type of politician seen in grand literary fiction. The type of public figure who's legend and mythos and apocrypha precedes him in any discussion or negotiation. I suspect, that's been his goal the entire time.



In the Beginning...

On January 13, 1971, a fresh-faced 28 year old lawyer named Mike Madigan assumed office as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, serving the 22nd district of Chicago's 13th Ward. Today, 49 years, 7 months, and 1 day later, he’s still there. That's 18,111 days. If you prefer, it's also 1,564,790,400 seconds, or 26,079,840 minutes, or 434,664 hours that Mike Madigan has been an elected Illinois government official.

Mike Madigan is the longest-serving speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives in state history, having now presided over 17 General Assemblies. In fact, Madigan is the longest-serving state House speaker in the history of the United States.

Since he first took office, he’s seen 9 Illinois Governors and 8 Chicago Mayors come and go.[2] He’s managed to see his name published and broadcast victorious on election night 21 times consecutively. Since he was named Speaker of the Illinois House in 1983, the Democrat Party has held a majority all but 2 of his 37 years. Time and time again, even as he’s seen his ward go from an over 95% White population in 1980 to an approximate 75% Hispanic majority in 2019, Madigan wins.

Truly impressive. Nay, truly awe-inspiring numbers for a local kid from the southwest side.

Without question, he’s the most powerful man in Illinois politics. If we were to compare him in a strictly local to Illinois political sense, he’s quite possibly the most powerful politician this state has ever seen. That’s arguable, of course, but it is arguable.

But that is not enough perspective to outline just how ingrained and embedded Mike Madigan is with our modern Illinois.



While Mike Madigan first took office in 1971, his initial entry into governance came two years earlier, when he was made the 13th Ward committeeman, the youngest committeeman at the time.

By 1968, the calls for a new Illinois Constitutional Convention had reached their zenith. The Illinois Constitution had not been rewritten for nearly 100 years and it was decided that it was time to update state laws with a more modern taxing system, a better way to redistrict legislative districts, a legislature that met annually, and more power for the governor. Madigan was subsequently elected as a delegate to this Sixth Constitutional Convention from the 27th District, along with people like the young Richie Daley, son to the aforementioned Boss Daley.

See, he's been there from the ostensible foundation. He essentially helped write the conscience of our current state government and helped bring forth its soul from the ancient æther. And if you don't believe me, take it from the man himself.

During the 1987 Illinois Constitutional Review,[3] Madigan said, "My hopes of 1969 and 1970 have been fulfilled every day that I have served in the General Assembly because...every day, every issue, every bill, every amendment in one way or another relates to the constitution and relates to the deliberations that were conducted at that time."

The 1969 Illinois Constitutional Convention was informally called the "Con-Con," for obvious reasons, and that's how it is derisively referenced today as it is the direct source of much of the state's financial woes. At the time, the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, perhaps prophetically, warned, "A constitutional convention is not a place for cranks and crackpots. It is also not a place to send party hacks as a reward for faithful work in the precincts."

The earnest naivete from the Tribune is cute, but this is Illinois, after all...

In his own words, from a 1986 interview with Chicago Magazine,[4] Madigan's father, Michael J. Madigan Sr., was "a very strong Democrat, he was a product of the Depression...He carried with him very strong feelings in favor of many of the enactments of the New Deal." Madigan Sr. worked as an assistant for Cook County Clerk Michael J. Flynn and as a precinct captain of the 13th Ward. He later worked for 25 years as the 13th Ward superintendent for the City of Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Also in that 1986 interview, Madigan mentioned that he was trying to find a job for the unemployed brother-in-law of a lawmaker. Asked why he was doing it, he replied: “Because it’s the correct thing for me to do in terms of maintaining a good relationship with the legislator, which builds my strength as the speaker and the Democratic leader.”

And yet, that is still not enough to detail just how omnipresent Mike Madigan's eye watches over the state or just how thorough his reach pervades and seeps into its halls of power.



Time & Money

Madigan controls 4 general election funds.

From the 4th Quarter 2019 Election Finance Reports at the Illinois State Board of Elections, Madigan is in charge of distributing the following campaign cash:

Friends of Michael J. Madigan
Total Raised: $5,311,802.27
Cash on Hand: $11,461,542.39

Democratic Party of Illinois
Total Raised: $1,587,029.21
Cash on Hand: $2,168,795.55

13th Ward Democratic Organization
Total Raised: $656,385
Cash on Hand: $2,429,574.30

Democratic Majority
Total Raised: $983,936.71
Cash on Hand: $5,000,569.15

Outside of a snap of his fingers and phone calls made to overeager political lap dog donors to raise even more money, he has over $21,000,000 cash on hand that he is in charge of distributing toward Illinois state politics.

To understand that number and give some better perspective, let's look back to 2018 and some of the bigger names in politics, just for comparison's sake.

Paul Ryan (R), former Vice Presidential Candidate and Former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, in his last election held $5,803,397 Cash on Hand. When Elizabeth Warren (D) was running for United States Senate in 2018? She had $11,092,688 Cash on Hand. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York in 2016? He had $9,464,715. The Republican on that list with the highest number was John Thune (R) of South Dakota. Thune had $11,590,320.

To review, in his local, Illinois House of Representative seat overseeing the 13th Ward, Madigan controls nearly double the number that candidates running for a United States Senate seat controls.

Does all that money go to his campaigns? No. But Madigan's district holds a little more than 57,000 registered voters. Of those 57,000 residents in that same 2018 election, only 18,000 even bothered to cast a vote. Of those 18,000 votes? Madigan ran unopposed and received 12,600 votes.

If he wanted, that's $1,666 that Madigan could theoretically spend per vote. Chuck Schumer for United States Senator of New York State for comparison? Chuck received 4,784,218 votes, so he could have theoretically spent a little less than $2 per vote.

When I really stop to consider the numbers, I can not help but be awed.

Maybe it wouldn't be so awesome if there were some sort of...well, anything...that Mike Madigan is particularly noted for other than his complete and total domination of Illinois elected office? Other than maintaining power and control over his protectorate, surely, Madigan has some great and noble cause? Other than himself, is his name synonymous with some particular moral tale or noteworthy clarion call? Who or what is he the great champion of? The Democratic Party of Illinois? The 22nd District? Kitty cats and puppy dogs?

It's strange. As a lifelong resident of this region and state, I'm unable to think of a single issue that Mike Madigan has ever taken and hung on his mantle.

I know the counterargument would be made that, due to his incredible reign, there are simply too many to count. Still, there's not one major issue that jumps out. Nothing that really pops, you know? Nothing that I can think of that says, "Mike Madigan did that." Nothing to remind anyone, "That's Mike Madigan's legacy."

Still, I can't help but think that length of service, staying power, a lifetime in governance, should give some indicator of sustained accomplishments and successes? Titles and time don't equate to results but, surely, there must be significant substance to outline, no?

Don't misunderstand me, I'm no ageist. Age has no bearing on historical impact, of course. I doubt the Declaration of Independence would have the same punch without 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin's editor's pen crossing out and revising some of the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson's lines. I wonder how France would look today had a 17-year-old Maid of Orleans been dismissed as a silly girl. Nor does length of notoriety or level of fame have outsized bearing on historical impact.

But, for political comparison's sake, if we're being generous, Julius Caesar's entire political career totaled somewhere between 25-30 years depending on when you want to start the clock carried through those infamous Ides of March. Abraham Lincoln held political office for a grand total of 30 years, 8 months, and 14 days excluding the tragic end date. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously elected U.S. President 4 times, had an entire political career that spanned 34 years, 3 months, and 12 days. The Great Alexander of Macedon could have been born, conquered his 2,000,000 square mile empire in which he founded over 70 cities, died, been born again, tamed Bucephalus again, finished his studies with Aristotle again, and would have been on the precipice of becoming king once more in the same historical span of time that Mike Madigan has been in office.

No, I'm no ageist. Madigan still has a ways to go to compete with someone like Winston Churchill, who spent 55 total years in government. Madigan has a ways to go before he catches the likes of John Dingell of Michigan, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, or Carl Hayden of Arizona.

But who's counting?

And yet I'm STILL not done.



Debt & Exodus

To expand, elocute, and enunciate his accomplishments even further, during Madigan’s remarkable reign, Illinois pension obligations are on pace to close near $139 billion by the end of 2020. That number, which is nothing short of obscene, is protected under Article XIII, Section 5, of the 1970 Illinois Constitution where it's written, “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

I'm not going to go into the minutia and fine print of the Illinois pension crisis. I'm not an investigator and I've never been good at math. I'm not going to even touch the law firm of Madigan & Getzendanner, specializing in property tax appeals where Madigan has made millions upon millions of dollars "helping" individuals and corporations "navigate" the "intricacies" of Illinois property tax law. Plenty of better funded and more well known outlets than this one have reviewed both issues over and over and over, time and time again.[5]

The easiest way to say say all this is, if you're a working person in Illinois over the age of 16, you owe a lot of money. Your money. Money that you earned and money you haven't earned, yet. So do your children. Your money and your children's money that either Mike Madigan directly or the people he's allowed to wield an iota of power beneath him has spent your entire lifetime spending for you before it ever even hit your pocket.

But that's not all, folks. Mike Madigan has managed to accomplish all of his wonderful accolades and accumulate all his illustrious titles and extraordinary records while Illinois faces an exodus not just of its population, but of its businesses. Last year, the Chicago metro area had the worst net out-migration of all Midwestern cities. The State of Illinois has been losing population for 6 years straight, since 2014.

At the start of 2020, Chicago's population is now almost the exact same as it was back in the 1920s. For comparison purposes, New York City (another American city losing population), gained approximately 2,716,769 people in that same time span. Though Madigan is currently in charge of "the Machine," he can't possibly be blamed for anything regarding population, right?

According the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, whose statistics available to me go back to 1976, at the close of January of that year, there were 5,133,491 Illinois citizens participating in the labor force. That number rose steadily through the end of October 1999. At the end of October in 1999, Illinois had a labor force participation rate of 6,503,998 people. At the end of October in 2019? That same figure was 6,505,066.

Twenty years. Twenty years of net zero growth in the state of Illinois. I suppose it's mere coincidence that the Illinois Democratic Party's Central Committee elected Madigan to chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois in April 1998? Where every elected Democrat official has to go through him and get his permission? Madigan fired the state party staff, closed its headquarters in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, moved it to Springfield, Illinois to the same office building as his campaign finance committee staff where Madigan really began to turn the screws.

Is growth the sole indicator of productivity and wealth creation? No. But it tells us something. More and more, people are going elsewhere to find their optimistic futures and, less and less, looking toward Illinois. Why? Because their wealth and productivity and standard of living is not growing.

Still, without us even touching on any of the scandals or accusations and allegations that have plagued his tenure, Madigan remains.

Even when, of any state in this union, Illinoisan's are least confident in their state government,[6] the man who controls the whole show remains.

So...how? How has he done it? There was only one conclusion.



Mike Madigan has some sort of magical mystery machine. I know he didn’t invent this machine, and I'm not exactly sure why he was given access to this machine, but this machine must exist. Somewhere. Someplace.

Behind a concert poster and graffiti covered door in a back alley off of Damen Avenue, it must be there...

In a room marked “Closet" in some quiet corridor in the Daley Center or Chicago City Hall, it must be there...

After the toilets are flushed in some pre-programmed sequence in a basement bathroom in the Illinois House of Representatives in Springfield, it must be there...

Is it possible Madigan’s magical mystery machine is mobile? Packed tight into the back of some nondescript, windowless, white van endlessly driving the streets of the state? Maybe an even larger semi-trailer...its air dam rising above the tassels...stalking...like a shark fin splitting the surface of Illinois' oceanic corn fields...


You're gonna need a bigger boat...
You're gonna need a bigger boat...

All right, now I'm being facetious. Let's get to the point.



The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated...

Many outlets have decried and declared the "death" of Chicago's machine politics for as long as I can[7] remember[8] and those same cries have[9] recently[10] reached[11] a[12] fever[13] pitch.[14] The previous references are from a lazy Google search, but there can be found many more.

Is this the end? Will the recent ComEd patronage scandal[15], his most in flagrante delicto scandal to date, and his hubris finally consume Boss Madigan and take him and "THE MACHINE" down for good?

I'm not holding my breath.

As late as January of this year, after the ComEd scandal story had been breaking for months, Madigan still managed to carve out an extra $10 million for his tiny 13th Ward from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s huge new $45 billion capital program budget. Every other ward? Asked to submit proposals up to $3 million.[16]

Mike Madigan isn't going anywhere.

He does not care about legacy. He has none. The only thing his name is now synonymous with is corruption. I'd add incompetence but that requires a much longer conversation. His name is a vulgar word on the tongues of an enormous segment of the current and rapidly growing former Illinois population.

If he had walked away years ago, maybe even had he taken on more of an advisor role and affected a softer disposition toward his electorate, at least for the media cameras, he could have salvaged a morsel of respect.

But now? Now, it's almost sad. Like Brooks at the end of the Shawshank Redemption,[17] he no longer has any understanding or personal agency to survive in the outside world. Sans Illinois politics and the protection of the great democratic walls he's gerry-mandered and drawn around himself (literally) and spent his entire life maintaining, he's...lost.

But he was most certainly here.

The "machine" can't be satisfying anymore, can it? At 78 years old, he desires nothing more?

We can touch on all the details of his life since he was a young lawyer but, perhaps the most damning observation into the character of Mike Madigan has always been his treatment of his daughter Lisa Madigan's career.

Shortly after he took total control of the Illinois Democratic Party in the late '90s, Mike Madigan spent an extraordinary sum getting Lisa elected Illinois Attorney General. That exorbitant sum was a scandal in and of itself outside of the fact that the wheelings and dealings of the most powerful man in Illinois politics' were now under the jurisdiction of and investigatory powers of his own daughter. Nevermind that. After she dutifully put in the years in service to her father, it's long been rumored that Lisa wanted to run for governor but she felt that the electorate would not consider her unless dear old Dad was out of office. At the time, he'd been in office 43 years and he was 72 years old.

He said no.

So when I heard that, despite growing calls for his resignation in the face of the ComEd patronage scandal,[18] he, once again, utterly refused to leave...well...you can't help but laugh. His own daughter is a mere cog, why would anyone expect this farce to end now?

Mike Madigan isn't going anywhere.

In an article I've already linked,[19] one Republican legislator said, "This is his oxygen. He can't give it up." Jim Sacia, former Republican legislator from Freeport, who served 6 terms, added that his addiction to winning and power is, "his Achilles heel."

The great Achilles, undefeated in battle, was struck at his weakest point and felled all the same. As Madigan will. As we all will, eventually. Political metaphor speaking, of course.

Perhaps it will prove prophetic then, that the people of Chicago, the once upon a time, self-coined, Paris on the Prairie, that will be Madigan's political downfall? Paris, by all accounts, a coward who was never given credit for his errant arrow that was always referenced either as a mistake or guided by Apollo.

Unfortunately, that came after Achilles' fabled wrath had wreaked its havoc.



The Ghost in the Machine

The truth is, there is no machine. There never has been one. The machine in this town is like a ghost or a spectre. A phantom apparition, ever present and all around us. A haunting.

The truth is, it's an excuse. It's a facade. It's artifice. It's theater of the mind.

Madigan and his cronies could have been stopped at any time over the course of the last 50 years with even a modicum or an iota of will from its citizens but the Illinois opposition would rather hide behind the excuse called "the Machine." An excuse that provides an easy out and shields them from the ugliness of their ignorance and apathy.

Fifty years. Five decades. Go all the way back to Anton Cermak, if you wish. The fact that there hasn't been some sort of natural revolution in this state is remarkable. Remarkable.

Illinoisans do not live in a failing state, they live in a failed state that just won't admit it, yet. Enablers to all deeds done behind the cover of Mike Madigan and his magical mystery machine. The citizens of Illinois' futures and their children's futures have been stolen from them. Stolen from them in the same way a common organized crime boss steals from his community.

And they let them do it.

I'd relate a metaphor to current events in Chicago but it's all so tiresome.

The truth is, Madigan's great power and influence comes from you, the citizen of Illinois. It comes from you, the voter. It comes from the 12,000 people in his district who continue to send him to office to play silent tyrant and velvet hammer to the rest of the state while he "keeps the trains running and the garbage picked up." It comes from you, the people of this state who continue to elect his cronies and his lackeys and his hanger's on and his minions to mortgage your children's, children's, children's future. It comes from you, the Illinois voter who continues to elect his doormats or refuse to get involved and/or make your discontents known.

After all, you can just escape to parts unknown, right? Who hasn't been privy to the following conversation:

"We just bought a place in {insert neighboring state}," a woman told the group.
"We're right behind you," another man said.
"Wait for us," yet another replied.
"You can visit us in Arizona," came a cry from across the room.
"We just put in an offer in Florida!" came another from the opposite wall.
"Hey, women and children in the lifeboats first!"
All laughed.

Illinois voters could be forgiven if this were some sort of grift. A brief, small-scale swindle. Maybe they could be forgiven if Madigan and his lackeys were some sort of mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.[20] Maybe if the Republican party in the state of Illinois, particularly its leadership, were a little more than legislative concubines, the Illinois voter could be granted clemency. Had it not been completely and utterly spineless and mismanaged throughout his tenure, the Illinois voter might be exonerated.

I'm unable to think of a more poignant quote than that which comes from Montesquieu and his Spirit of the Laws, published in 1748.[21]

“The tyranny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.”

  • Montesquieu - The Spirit of the Laws

Imagine if he had the luck to witness and live under both at the same time?

Welcome to Illinois.




  1. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Boss_(book) ↩︎

  2. Many of them to prison. ↩︎

  3. The 1970 Illinois Constitution: An Assessment by the Delegates [PDF]. (1987, September). Springfield, Illinois: The Committee of 50 to Re-examine the Illinois Constitution. https://ilga.gov/commission/lru/Assessment.pdf. ↩︎

  4. Ylisela, J. (n.d.). Michael Madigan Is the King of Illinois. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/December-2013/michael-madigan/. ↩︎

  5. Grotto, J., & Kambhampati, S. (2017, December 07). The Tax Divide: Commercial breakdown. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://apps.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/cook-county-property-tax-divide/. ↩︎

  6. Jones, J. (2017, June 08). Illinois Residents Least Confident in Their State Government. Retrieved August 17, 2020, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/189281/illinois-residents-least-confident-state-government.aspx. ↩︎

  7. Kuczka, S. (2018, October 08). CHICAGO MACHINE DIED WITH DALEY. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1986-12-21-8603180645-story.html. ↩︎

  8. Wright, M., & Herron, C. (1986, January 05). CHICAGO MACHINE FACES A WRENCH. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/1986/01/05/weekinreview/the-nation-chicago-machine-faces-a-wrench.html. ↩︎

  9. Mcclelland, E., White, J., Sitrin, S., & Gerstein, B. (2018, June 17). How Donald Trump and Chuy Garcia Broke the Chicago Machine. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/06/17/chicago-donald-trump-chuy-garcia-machine-218825. ↩︎

  10. Bauer, K. (2016, October 19). Chicago And Rigged Elections? The History Is Even Crazier Than You've Heard. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20161019/downtown/vote-rigged-elections-history-fraud-stolen-trump/. ↩︎

  11. Simpson, D. (2019, May 31). Is the Chicago machine 'dead, dead, dead'? Don't plan the funeral yet. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-machine-dead-edward-burke-lori-lightfoot-20190531-story.html. ↩︎

  12. Joyce, S. (2019, February 02). The Changing Concept of the "Machine": A Deeper Look Into Chicago's Machine Politics. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.chicagomaroon.com/article/2019/2/13/changing-concept-machine-deeper-look-chicago-machi/. ↩︎

  13. McClelland, E. (2019, April 3). The Machine Is Dead. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from http://www.chicagomag.com/arts-culture/April-2019/Lori-Lightfoot-Toni-Preckwinkle-the-Chicago-Machine-Is-Dead/. ↩︎

  14. Is the Machine Dead? The Future of Chicago Politics. (n.d.). Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://civicseries.org/event/is-the-machine-dead-the-future-of-chicago-politics/. ↩︎

  15. McKinney, D. (2020, August 03). Breaking Down The ComEd Patronage Scandal - And What's Next For Michael Madigan. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from https://www.wbez.org/stories/breaking-down-the-comed-patronage-scandal-and-whats-next-for-michael-madigan/629afc56-8083-4e08-a9ab-faab6207a7a3. ↩︎

  16. Hinz, G. (2020, January 16). Madigan's $10 million windfall: How the 13th Ward made out big. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.chicagobusiness.com/greg-hinz-politics/madigans-10-million-windfall-how-13th-ward-made-out-big. ↩︎

  17. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111161/ ↩︎

  18. Hinton, R. (2020, August 11). Seventh House Democrat calls on Madigan to hand over speaker's gavel now: 'It's the right thing to do'. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://chicago.suntimes.com/2020/8/11/21363913/house-democrat-madigan-leadership-comed-speaker-chairman-gong-gershowitz. ↩︎

  19. Ylisela, J. (n.d.). Michael Madigan Is the King of Illinois. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/December-2013/michael-madigan/. ↩︎

  20. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0181875/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu ↩︎

  21. Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat de, & Cohler, A. M. (2009). The Spirit of the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ↩︎

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