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BERG: What do you get a man who has everything?

Austin Berg
Austin Berg

House Speaker Mike Madigan’s 76th birthday is April 19. 

He has the Illinois General Assembly, where the House rules ensure nothing moves without his blessing. He has the title of longest-serving state legislative leader in U.S. history. He has a lucrative law practice that specializes in politically connected property tax appeals. He has his daughter in the attorney general’s seat. He has the chairmanship of the state Democratic Party, and he is the only legislative leader in the nation to hold such a position. 

But there’s one thing Madigan doesn’t have: the humility to know it’s time to leave.

Madigan’s Democratic peers elected him House speaker in 1983, and he’s reamined at that post for 33 of the last 35 years. What is his legacy?

Let’s take a look at state finances. It’s not the sexiest measure, but it’s consistent across time and affects the livelihood of every Illinoisan.

Illinois was a AAA-rated state when Madigan first became speaker in January 1983. The Land of Lincoln was among elite company, with Moody’s deeming only a dozen states worthy of its highest credit rating. That started to falter just three months into Madigan’s speakership, when Standard & Poor’s took the state down a notch to AA-plus, citing poor economic conditions.

Fast forward to 2013, when Illinois earned its lowest credit in history. And now it’s home to the worst credit rating in the nation, just one notch above junk. 

Funny enough, the Emerald Isle offers some context regarding Illinois’ slide under the speaker from Chicago’s Southwest Side.

For the decade prior to the financial crisis, Ireland enjoyed a AAA credit rating. But then the country entered a full-on depression, received an international bailout and saw its finances go to pot. In 2014, still with an unemployment rate over 12 percent, Moody’s pulled Ireland up barely above junk status, rating its bonds at Baa3 with a positive outlook.

That’s where Illinois stands today, except Moody’s gives us a negative outlook. It’s an ugly state of affairs. 

Unfortunately, assessing Madigan’s career performance brings about cries in certain crowds of “what about”-ism. What about Republicans? What about global economic trends? He’s just one man, after all. 

It’s important to note that Republicans had control of the Illinois House for a two-year stretch in the 1990s. In fact, Republicans have held the governor’s office for the majority of Madigan’s time as speaker. And as powerful as he is, Madigan doesn’t control the bulls and bears of the global economy. Yes, many politicians over the years from both parties were either complicit or active participants in the creation of Illinois’ financial problems. 

But blaming everybody is the same as blaming nobody. 

There has been one man in a position of enormous influence across generations, both in practical governance and party politics. That’s Madigan, and as such he deserves an outsized portion of blame for the state of the state – more than any single politician in the last four decades. To say otherwise requires some seriously tortured mental gymnastics.

Nevertheless, late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s most prolific protégé will soon have cause to celebrate yet again. Madigan will almost certainty enjoy re-election to his post as the Democratic Party chairman when officials convene in Springfield April 23, making him the longest-serving Democratic Party chairman in Illinois history. 

The speaker might not be one for parties. But if there’s any gift he knows how to appreciate, it’s power.

AUSTIN BERG is a Chicago-based writer with the conservative Illinois Policy Institute and is writing for the Illinois News Network, a project of IPI. He can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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