'Fire Madigan' Strategy May Not Work Out

Oct 1, 2012

Is Mike Madigan the Darth Vader of Illinois government, a sort of Dark Lord responsible for all the woes besetting the Prairie State, from its lowered bond rating to its mountain of unpaid bills, maybe even this summer’s devastating drought?

That’s the narrative Republican leaders hope will persuade Illinois voters on November 6 to support GOP candidates up and down the ballot, but most importantly for the Illinois General Assembly.

Signs proclaiming “Save Illinois — Fire Madigan” sprouted among party faithful on Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair in August, and T-shirts with the same message dotted delegate ranks at the Republican National Convention a few weeks later.

Doubling down, GOP honchos unveiled a website selling the shirts, hats, bumper stickers, buttons, coffee mugs, golf balls, wall clocks and other paraphernalia intended to remind Illinoisans who’s to blame for everything’s that’s wrong in the state (with the possible exception of the woeful Chicago Cubs).

“If you think after over 40 years in Springfield and Illinois being ranked as one of the worst states financially that it’s time to Fire Illinois House Speaker/Illinois Democratic Party Chairman/Father of the Illinois Attorney General Mike Madigan, you can have a little fun helping spread the word with any of these FIRE MADIGAN products,” according to the website, http://www.cafepress.com/fire_madigan.

At first blush, the GOP game plan for Election Day might seem like a good idea. After all, anti-Chicago sentiment has been part of Illinois since the city’s earliest years; one popular legend has it that Shawneetown bankers refused to lend money to the fledgling village in the 1830s because they thought it would never amount to anything. While that tale might be more fiction than fact, rural-oriented downstate lawmakers refused to redistrict the Illinois House following the 1910 census — and for 45 years after that — out of fear that Chicago’s burgeoning population would allow urban interests to dominate the House. More recently, a couple of House Republicans introduced a resolution last November urging Congress to make Chicago its own state, only to see it disappear into the Democratic-controlled House Rules Committee, further proof, no doubt, of Madigan’s perfidy.

Upon further review, however, the oh-so-clever strategy might not pan out. Consider:

  • Similar plans have been tried before — in fact, almost every election cycle for the last 30 years — with little or no success. Back in the 1980s, for example, GOP operatives tried to undercut downstate incumbent House Democrats by highlighting the high percentage of roll calls on which the target voted the same way as the speaker. The tactic backfired when roll call analyses showed that Republican leaders voted just as often with Madigan, a reflection that most House votes are neither controversial nor partisan.

    Moreover, most rank-and-file voters who recognize the Madigan name are more likely to think Lisa than Mike, and polling consistently shows that the attorney general is one of the most popular political figures in the state. Indeed, only about a third of Illinois voters wanted to fire her when she ran for re-election two years ago, and she’s given no one any cause since then.

  • The GOP message stretches the truth to the breaking point, as is obvious to any student of Illinois political science and history.

    First, a lesson in Political Science 101: For a bill to become a law, majorities in the House and in the Senate must vote for it and the governor either must sign it or let it become law without his signature, or, in the case of a veto, three-fifths majorities must vote to override. No single presiding officer, not even one as omnipotent as Madigan, can make law unilaterally.

    Next, a bit of Illinois History 101: While Madigan was first elected to the House in 1970, he did not become speaker until 1983, a post he’s held with one two-year hiatus since then. During the first 20 years of that 30-year span, Republicans held the governorship — think Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, George Ryan. In that stretch, Madigan and other Democratic leaders usually worked with the GOP chief executives to fashion compromises acceptable to all on major issues, such as the annual budget.

    Not until Rod Blagojevich took office in 2003 did Madigan have a governor of his own party, and more often than not, the speaker was at odds with the incompetent and corrupt Blagojevich.

    Shifting focus to the state’s most pressing fiscal challenge — financing its public workers’ pensions — Illinois has not fully funded state retirement systems for at least eight decades, if not more. For example, the systems were less than 30 percent funded in 1946 (when Madigan was 4 years old); now, the funding ratio is about 43 percent.

    Finally, combining the two lessons, again with a focus on pensions: Governors and lawmakers of both parties routinely chose to use the state’s limited revenues year after year to pay for current programs such as education, human services and health care rather than sock away the dollars needed to keep abreast of future pension benefits that workers earned each year.

    Democrats have controlled the governor’s office and both legislative chambers for the last decade, so perhaps Madigan can be faulted for not leading his party mates down the path of fiscal rectitude since then. But he certainly can’t be blamed for arguably the major cause of the state’s red ink, the national economic collapse of the Great Recession, with its devastating impact on state tax receipts.

  • Most significantly, Democrats have home field advantage in the current battle for legislative seats, under a redistricting plan they carefully gerrymandered to elect Democratic majorities. While the new map has yet to be tested, history suggests the D’s will do well. In the 1980s, the party went five-for-five in elections under a Democratic map, holding House and Senate majorities despite the 1984 Reagan landslide and the 1986 debacle in which the party had no candidate for governor. Democrats also swept all five elections under the 2001 map they fashioned. Even more telling, Madigan’s troops won House majorities in four out of five elections under the 1991 redistricting ... even though Republicans drew that map.

Next month, voters will give a final review to the GOP’s “Fire Madigan” story line. The guess here is that the Dark Lord will be the one living happily ever after. 

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, October 2012