Historic bond of veteran House speaker tested by ComEd bribery scandal
By Erick Johnson
For decades, Black lawmakers in the Illinois House have supported veteran House Speaker Michael Madigan on his bills and legislative agendas. Few lawmakers—Black or white—have dared to oppose Madigan or cross the “Madigan Machine” that has had its grip on Springfield for decades. With the help of Black Democrats, Madigan’s powerful House leadership has endured through six Illinois governors.
However, that bond is being tested as the feds close in on Madigan in a bribery scandal that may seal his 40-year career as the “Real Governor of Illinois.” The scandal involves ComEd, who prosecutors say in exchange for favorable legislation, gave jobs, contracts and payments to people connected to “Public Official A,” who is later referred to as the Illinois House Speaker. Feds say the scandal occurred between 2011 and 2019.
Recently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago charged four individuals with bribery conspiracy, bribery, and willfully falsifying ComEd books and records.
The indictments are expected to help prosecutors close in on Madigan as the defendants are expected to testify against the House Speaker or strike plea deals in favor of lighter punishments.
The indictment alleges that “the defendants undertook other efforts to influence and reward “Public Official A,” including causing ComEd to retain a particular outside law firm favored by “Public Official A” and to accept into ComEd’s internship program a certain amount of students who resided in the Chicago ward associated with “Public Official A.”
As Madigan fights for his political life, most Black lawmakers remain publicly silent on whether to support him as he seeks a nineteenth term as Illinois House Speaker. So far, the state’s top three Democrats—Governor J.B. Priztker and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth—have publicly said Madigan should step down as House Speaker and chair of the Illinois Democratic Party. Many Republicans want Madigan out.
There are 20 Black lawmakers serving in the Illinois House and 10 in the Illinois Senate. Since federal prosecutors uncovered the bribery scandal last summer, there has not been a single press release or press conference from Illinois Black lawmakers that communicate whether they support Madigan as he seeks another term as House Speaker.
Pritzker is blaming Madigan for distrust in Springfield that led voters to reject the governor’s Fair Tax Amendment in the November 3 election. In Chicago, 82 percent of voters in the city’s 18 Black wards voted in favor of the amendment. The amendment still failed at the polls, and Pritzker is preparing to make steep budget cuts that may hurt the Black community.
Despite concerns that Madigan’s problems and distrust had an indirect impact on the amendment, Black lawmakers remain silent on whether they will still support the embattled House Speaker.
The Crusader sent emails and left voice messages to several Black lawmakers, but have not heard back as of the Crusader’s press time Tuesday, November 24. They include Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Chair Senator Kimberly Lightford and her aide, Diana Martinez.
For Madigan to win another term as House Speaker, he needs at least 60 votes from fellow Democrats. That may be a challenge this time around as 18 Democrats have pledged not to vote for Madigan in January. Sources say many of these Democrat lawmakers are from white areas of Illinois, like Rockford and Carroll County. So far, Madigan is five votes short of the necessary 60 votes he needs for another term. If opposition remains the way it is, in January, Madigan will not win re-election as House Speaker.
In January, Madigan will run against State Representative Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, who announced her campaign for the position in October.
“If Michael Madigan is not indicted, I’ll support him,” State Representative LaShawn K. Ford told the Crusader in a phone interview.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Assistant Majority Leader William “Will” Davis, of Hazel Crest said he had a “very short” conversation with Madigan on November 20. Davis said Madigan asked for his vote.
“I have told Speaker Madigan that I would support him, and I would not back away from that support,” Davis said in the Sun-Times. In that story, Davis also made clear he has his eye on the Speaker’s gavel if Madigan steps down.
Ford and Davis are the only two Black lawmakers who have spoken publicly about their support for Madigan.
The Crusader reached out to Illinois Lieutenant Governor, Juliana Stratton, who as a rookie candidate, was backed by Madigan in 2016 when she ran against Fifth District State Representative Ken Dunkin. Stratton did not respond by press time Tuesday.
Over 40 years, Madigan built a political fortress in Springfield. Stratton’s political career received a key boost from Madigan in 2016. That is when Dunkin, a 15-year veteran in the seat, went against Madigan and sided with Republican Governor Bruce Rauner by not voting on a bill that would have provide more childcare assistance to Illinois residents.
Dunkin’s move infuriated Madigan, who, as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, gave $40,000 to Stratton and won her endorsements from prominent Black leaders, including former President Barack Obama and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. It was one of the most expensive races in Illinois, with some $6 million in campaign contributions. Stratton crushed Dunkin, winning 68 percent of the vote. The victory earned Stratton respect and prominence as a freshman politician. Two years later, Pritzker tapped her as the first Black Lieutenant Governor of Illinois.
While Madigan’s legacy is threatened, Ford believes he will get the votes to win a second term as House Speaker. “Regardless of whether he get the 60 votes, the question is ‘Will his opponent get the 60 votes?’ I’m not sure if we may have a House Speaker at all in January, but we need one.”