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A Generation of Legislative Leaders Passes from the Scene

Michael Madigan and Mike Miller are the most prominent among a host of legislators who held office for decades and have recently been ousted from leadership, retired or passed away.

Speaker Michael Madigan on the floor as the Illinois House of Representatives on Jan. 8, 2021. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Michael Madigan was first sworn into the Illinois House 50 years ago this month. He ruled as speaker for 36 of those years, making him the longest-serving state House speaker in American history. His reign finally ended on Jan. 13, when Chris Welch was elected to replace him.

“He has been a dominant force for so long that very few of us can think of Illinois politics without the role of Mike Madigan,” says John Jackson, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University. “He dominated the House and, to a lesser extent, much of Democratic politics.”

Madigan’s tenure as leader finally ended due to a bribery and patronage investigation that has resulted in multiple indictments of his allies and associates. Madigan has not been charged with any crime. Republicans had complained for years that Madigan was a corrupt figure and the latest round of indictments led prominent Democrats to decide it was finally time for him to go.

Although Madigan’s fall from power was triggered by a corruption scandal, it’s emblematic of a larger generational shift in legislative politics. “Mike Madigan is definitely in the category of a kind of leader we’re never going to see again,” says Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC).

Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Maryland, who was the longest-serving president of any state Senate, died on Jan. 15, less than a month after resigning his seat due to health reasons and just over a year after leaving his leadership post. Miller’s body was lying in state at the Annapolis Capitol rotunda on Friday and buried on Saturday.

“In Maryland, you’re not going ever to be able to forget the impact of Mike Miller, when the Senate building is actually named after Mike Miller,” says Mileah Kromer, a pollster at Goucher College.

Leaders can come not only to dominate but also seem to define their chambers, running their internal operations, protecting members politically and speaking for the body in negotiations with the governor and the other house. Their passage from power, for whatever reason, spells the end of a particular era.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be replaced. Some longtime leaders will acknowledge that when they were newcomers, their chambers were ruled by individuals who seemed irreplaceable at the time. Even the names of those prior leaders, however, might not be remembered by today’s junior members.

None of the current members of the California Assembly or Ohio House served with Willie Brown or Vern Riffe, for example. They were such dominant and long-serving leaders that their very presence was used as a symbol to help convince voters to enact term limits back in the 1990s. 

“When a leader leaves, as with any change, people fear it, but then we just get by,” Mooney says. “There are plenty of competent people to do these things, so it’s not like it’s going to fall apart. On the other hand, it’s not like things automatically become great.”

Why Madigan Had to Go

Republicans had long chafed under Madigan’s iron rule of the Illinois House. During his term as GOP governor, Bruce Rauner referred to him as a dictator more than once.

Madigan ran an old-fashioned patronage operation, placing people in jobs that helped Democrats retain their majority, which in turn helped drive clients to his law firm. Madigan’s legislative office was served with a subpoena last July as part of a federal investigation surrounding Commonwealth Edison, which allegedly directed $1.3 million in contracts and payments to Madigan associates.  

At the time, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that, if the allegations were true, Madigan “must resign.” Pritzker, along with Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, the state’s two U.S. senators, all called last year for Madigan to step down as chair of the Illinois Democratic Party. 

Madigan was used as a lightning rod during the successful campaign to defeat a ballot measure in November that would have created a graduated income tax in Illinois, a top Pritzker priority. Madigan still intended to run for another term as speaker. A group of 19 House Democrats, however, said they would never support him. 

“Democrats should see this defeat as the bill coming due for decades of cronyism, corruption, ghost payrolling, insider deals and all the other hinkiness that gives Illinois its reputation as the most politically dishonest state in the nation,” Edward McClelland wrote in Chicago magazine. “The federal investigation into Madigan for pressuring ComEd into hiring his lackeys was the final bag of garbage into a dumpster the Democrats' couldn't shut the lid on, allowing the stench to spread all across the state.”

Madigan’s Legacy

With Madigan finally out of power, it’s hard to point to a single piece of legislation that stands as his legacy, but his fingerprints were on everything the state did – or failed to do – for decades. He was a master at putting together coalitions when he wanted to, or stopping bills when he wanted to do that. “Nobody knew the mechanics of the process, or mobilized the process, better than Mike Madigan,” says Jackson, the SIU political scientist.

Madigan was enormously deft at keeping the various factions within his party under control. When representatives got into trouble, they knew they could count on him – and his multimillion-dollar campaign treasury – to bail them out. 

“His main job was retaining the majority,” says UIC’s Mooney. “He was extremely skillful at both electoral politics and policymaking, and he accomplished what his caucus wanted.”

Madigan held power the old-fashioned way. His control of both the chamber and the state party were mutually reinforcing sources of power, allowing him to punish enemies and reward friends. Given his long tenure, he was able to incrementally build up and consolidate his power in various ways – keeping control of all the policy staff in leadership offices, rather than spread among individual legislators, or swapping people off committees for a single vote.

“With Madigan out, it will allow for a much more rich conversation,” says Michael Pagano, dean of UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. “The animosity toward state politics is just palpable, given the opaqueness of decision-making at the state level. To remove Madigan will hopefully rebuilt trust in state government.”

Changing of the Generational Guard

Like Madigan, Maryland’s Mike Miller was an old-school Irish Catholic politician who operated more as a pragmatic dealmaker and fundraiser than an ideologue. Like Madigan, Miller found himself challenged by a younger, more progressive generation of Democrats.

“President Miller is out of step and out of date with politics in the state of Maryland,” state Comptroller Peter Franchot told Governing in 2019. “He is the embodiment of a bygone era.”

Miller had helped abolish Maryland’s death penalty and legalize same-sex marriage, yet four of his top lieutenants were ousted during Democratic primaries in 2018 as part of a “Take a Hike, Mike” challenge from the left. Miller survived and held on to his leadership post, which he then gave up in 2019 due to prostate cancer. Miller was replaced as president by Bill Ferguson, who hadn’t yet reached his fourth birthday when Miller first held the post.

Miller’s resignation as president came a few months after the death of Michael Busch, who had served as speaker of the Maryland House for 16 years.

“It was clear that there is a new generation of leadership that has taken over,” says Kromer, the Goucher College political scientist.

New Faces in State Legislatures

Fred Risser, the longest-serving state lawmaker in American history, retired earlier this month. He was first elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1956 and then won election to the state Senate in 1962, serving in a variety of leadership roles over the years.

Former Indiana House Speaker Patrick Bauer, who was first elected to the chamber in 1970, also decided not to run for re-election last year. Mississippi Sen. Tommy Gollott, first elected to the state House back in 1969, retired a year earlier. “Fifty-two years is long enough to be anywhere,” he said.

Texas Rep. Tom Craddick, a former House speaker, is now the last active legislator who began his service during the 1960s. Madigan and New York Assemblymember Dick Gottfried are the only other remaining legislators with a full half-century in office.

When Madigan and Miller were first elected in 1970, roughly 97 percent of state legislators were white men. The share of women, Black and Latino legislators is still not representative of the population as a whole, but has increased dramatically since then.

Welch, the first African American speaker in Illinois, has appointed a leadership team that includes some Madigan holdovers, as well as a diverse lineup of women, Black and Latino members. 

Adrienne Jones, who succeeded Busch as Maryland’s first African American speaker, recently unveiled what she called a “Black agenda” to address systemic racism in housing, health, wealth and policing

“Let’s put it this way, the 106 speakers before me, they would not put [this] as a priority,” Jones told the Washington Post. “Historically, there has been a white agenda.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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