Looking back at Michael Madigan’s 50-year career


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Few people shaped the trajectory of Illinois state government more than Michael Madigan.

The ‘Velvet Hammer’ held the Speaker’s gavel for 36 out of the last 38 years, setting a record as the longest running legislative leader in American history. Madigan resigned his office on Thursday morning, leaving his House district for someone else to represent for the first time in more than half a century.

“Fifty years ago, I decided to dedicate my life to public service,” the 78-year-old Madigan said. “Simply put, I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.”

In 1970, as a delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention, Madigan helped write the document that protected state workers’ pension benefits and enshrined the flat income tax into the tax code.

The progressive push to abolish the flat income tax failed last November as voters rejected Governor J.B. Pritzker’s proposal to amend the constitution. Pritzker argued the flat income tax imposed a regressive burden on the low income and middle class.

In the years since 1970, the gap separating the richest and poorest earners in the state has grown dramatically wider. While that mirrors a national trend, income inequality in Illinois outpaces the national average. During the same timeline, the state’s pension debt has soared and the state’s budget has sagged under its weight. However, Illinois’ minimum wage has outpaced all of our Midwestern neighbors, rising 16 times since he became Speaker.

“We were able to level the playing field and strengthen the middle class while workers in other states saw their wages diminished,” Madigan said.

Under his watch, House Democrats were “not going to sacrifice the interest of the middle class on their wages and their standard of living,” Madigan said in 2016.

In 1983, in one of his first acts as Speaker of the House, Madigan helped spearhead the passage of the Collective Bargaining Act, strengthening union power in the state.

In a press conference shortly after taking office as Speaker, Madigan told reporters, “Our first order of business will be legislation which has already been drafted, which is designed to provide for economic recovery and future development to the state of Illinois.”

In 1984, Madigan passed the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, opening government records up for public scrutiny, though the law to this day shields legislators and judges from public records requests.

“Under my leadership, we increased transparency of state and local government by creating the Freedom of Information Act and protecting it from attempts to water it down,” Madigan said.

Two years after he took office in Springfield, Madigan founded a law firm specializing in appealing property taxes. Throughout the years, the client list at Madigan and Getzendanner would include some of the most prolific and notable names in the private sector and public life.

Illinois’ property tax burden is among the highest in the nation, and until a signature education funding bill passed in 2017, Illinois was home to the most underfunded school districts in the nation.

“We achieved school funding reform to increase investment for schools in need and address inequalities in our state’s education system,” Madigan said, rattling off a list of his signature accomplishments.

The education funding reform measure handed Governor Bruce Rauner one of his few legislative victories while in office. However, Madigan also sent a significant abortion measure to Rauner’s desk, which turned the GOP base against him ahead of his 2018 showdown with Democrat J.B. Pritzker. The following year, Madigan’s House again approved another bill to expand abortion rights, which Pritzker said made Illinois the “most progressive state in the nation” on women’s reproductive rights. The Springfield Archdiocese later banned Madigan from taking communion at the Catholic church.

In 2013, under Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois followed six other states in legalizing same-sex marriage.

“We upheld the rights of all Illinois residents by passing marriage equality, finally recognizing the rights of men and women to marry the people they love,” Madigan said.

The state also abolished the death penalty under Quinn in 2011.

In 2019, Madigan led the House as the state expanded video and casino gambling, legalized sports betting, legalized marijuana, expunged the convictions of low-level drug users, and doubled the gas tax to fund a $45 billion capital infrastructure plan.

Madigan listed many of the career accomplishments in which he takes pride, but none of them seemed to bring him more personal satisfaction than defeating Rauner in the 2017 budget battle and again in the 2018 election.

Rauner, a multi-millionaire private equity investor, won office in 2014 by waging a public messaging campaign against Madigan, attacking him as a kingpin running a corrupt government enterprise.

The relentless attacks struck a nerve.

“It’s no secret that I have been the target of vicious attacks by people who sought to diminish my many achievements lifting up the working people of Illinois,” Madigan said. “The fact is, my motivation for holding elected office has never wavered. I have been resolute in my dedication to public service and integrity, always acting in the interest of the people of Illinois.”

Madigan leaves office under federal investigation after ComEd, the state’s largest public utility company, admitted to disguising secret payments to members of the Speaker’s inner circle at the same time Madigan’s House was approving taxpayer funded subsidies and allowing the company to charge consumers higher rates for electricity. The company agreed to pay a $200 million fine to avoid criminal prosecution. Madigan has not been charged, and denies any wrongdoing.

“I leave office at peace with my decision and proud of the many contributions I’ve made to the state of Illinois, and I do so knowing I’ve made a difference,” he said.

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