Attorney General Lisa Madigan has long been considered a governor-in-waiting, so much so that her announcement this week that she's not running for the position of Illinois' chief executive ruined the plans of pols in both parties.
The first to fall victim to Madigan's decision to seek a fourth term as attorney general is Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon. Simon had all but announced her candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination to replace Madigan; now she's rethinking her options, supposedly focusing on a run for comptroller.
On the Republican side, House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego announced Wednesday that he is abandoning plans to run for the GOP nomination for attorney general. The veteran legislator wants the job, but not if it means challenging the formidable Madigan. He'll remain in the House, the result being that several House Republicans who want Cross' leadership position will have to either wait for him to leave on his own or plan a coup d'etat.
All across both parties, ambitious wannabes looking for a better slot on the political merry-go-round are blocked by Madigan.
This diminutive dominatrix comes by her political power honestly — she inherited it.
Her father is the all-powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan. Indeed, he's so powerful that he's the only one who could have scuttled his daughter's plans to run for governor.
He did so by refusing to retire. And why should he go anyway? He's only been in the Illinois House for 43 years and held the position of speaker 28 out of the last 30 years, more than ample time to be one of the main architects of Illinois' current disastrous circumstances.
After months of calculating the possibility of running for governor, Lisa Madigan announced this week she would "never" run for governor while her father held the post of House speaker because it would be inappropriate to have daughter/father serving as governor/speaker.
Of course, she said the exact opposite last month, so it's impossible to know if she really means it. If she does, it would mark the first time in history that an Illinois politician set aside personal ambition in the interest of mere propriety.
It goes without saying that Speaker Madigan is the most powerful politician in Illinois. Simultaneously a legislative heavyweight and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, he operates by the theory that he who speaks least has the most power.
He plays his cards close to the vest, has a long reach and an ever longer memory. Nobody messes with Speaker Madigan without thinking seriously about the consequences. Well, there was an exception, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
During sometimes tough budget negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders, the foolhardy Blagojevich repeatedly sought to provoke the ice-cold Madigan with verbal jabs. Madigan didn't respond in kind, and he stopped attending the sessions because he said his presence unduly agitated Blagojevich. But he later had the pleasure of presiding over Blagojevich's impeachment.
At any rate, with Blagojevich doing a long stretch in federal prison, the number of Madigan baiters has dwindled to zero.
Still, Speaker Madigan is not without his perception problems, and some of them might have helped to rain on his daughter's political parade.
The latest political scandal in Chicago involves METRA, the commuter rail service funded by taxpayers.
The board of METRA recently ousted its relatively new executive director, Californian Alex Clifford, sending him out the door with a $718,000 golden parachute that required him to promise never to spill the beans about how various power brokers use the agency to feather their own political nests.
The buyout prompted a big stink, and, more important, an investigation into why it was so important that Clifford be muzzled. It has since been revealed that among the various politicians pressuring Clifford to play ball was Speaker Madigan, who requested a promotion for one METRA employee and a raise for another. When Clifford refused because the actions would have been contrary to the requirement of making employment decisions based on merit, two METRA board members expressed concern that Madigan would retaliate against the agency by cutting its funding.
That, of course, is only a small portion of the issues that were described in painful detail in a lengthy memo Clifford sent to board members. Suffice it to say, sleazy Chicago politics was at play, and it wasn't pretty.
What's striking about this event is that Clifford was brought into METRA to clean up a scandal-tarred agency.
In May 2011, Clifford's predecessor, Phil Pagano, committed suicide by standing in front of a METRA train. He was about to be fired for financial improprieties, and a subsequent investigation revealed that he had authorized $475,000 in questionable payments to himself.
Clifford was brought in to make sure everything was done by the rules. At least, that's what he was told.
Clifford subsequently found out that following the rules means doing what Madigan and other political heavyweights tell him to do or lose his job.
Anyhow, METRA's been all over the news, and the frequent mention of Speaker Madigan's name has put a dent in his daughter's halo. Some people even have had the temerity to wonder aloud why the attorney general of Illinois doesn't look into the sleazy conduct surrounding METRA.
But perish that thought. The METRA scandal will come and go, just like all the other scandals Illinoisans have grown weary of hearing about.
Meanwhile, Speaker Madigan will remain in charge for the duration while his daughter searches for a higher political office to seek after she easily wins re-election next year. If she's serious about not running for governor while her dad remains speaker, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who is up for election in 2016, better kick his fundraising plans into a higher gear.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.