Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Listen to this article

If Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was a figure for whom one could feel sympathy — he’s not — this would be about the time to pull out a hanky and start blubbering.

The guy is being buffeted from one side by scandal (Madigan dislikes that) and challenges to his vast power (he can’t abide that). If that’s not bad enough, the news keeps getting worse.

The feds are on Madigan’s trail in connection with his alleged role in the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal. Last week, they bagged another conviction from a high-ranking former ComEd executive who pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy and promised to squeal like a stuck pig in exchange for a sentence of probation.

Look for more arrangements like that with other participants in the alleged scheme to win Madigan’s political favor by putting his friends and associates in no-show jobs at the utility giant.

The guilty plea entered by Fidel Marquez was followed by news that state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, an Aurora Democrat who’s tired of Madigan’s odiferous role in state politics and public policy, announced she’ll challenge the 78-year-old Chicago Democrat for speaker next year.

“It is clear to me that (Madigan) doesn’t hold the same values that I do and falls short of what the public expects from an elected official,” said Kifowit, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who earlier was among a small group of House Democrats who urged Madigan to resign because of the ComEd scandal.

Barring dramatic developments, it would be naive to expect Kifowit to be successful. But her presence in the speaker’s contest will complicate circumstances.

Here’s how. For many years, some House Democrats outside of Cook County have tried to play down, even deny, their support for Madigan. They either refused to answer reporters’ questions about supporting him for speaker or pretended they didn’t know whom they’d vote for because they didn’t know who the candidates would be.

They knew full well they’d be backing Madigan for re-election as speaker.

But they couldn’t bring themselves to admit in advance that they planned to vote for him. With Kifowit officially challenging Madigan, all of her House Democratic colleagues — like everyone else paying attention — will have to choose between Madigan and his challenger.

That’s a public-relations problem that will be difficult to manage.

In addition to his legal and public-relations problems, Madigan also has a political problem, one he’s already addressing. With some House Democrats distancing themselves from him, Madigan needs more Democrats in his supermajority caucus to ensure he has enough votes to be re-elected speaker, and he’s working on it.

He’s identified vulnerable House Republicans, particularly in the Chicago suburbs, where President Donald Trump is politically toxic. If he can supplement the House Democratic caucus with new members who owe their sole allegiance to him, he can make up for the former loyalists-turned-dissenters now jumping off the S.S. Madigan.

As a consequence, Madigan is likely to keep the speaker’s post he’s held for all but two years since 1983.

Despite his best-laid plans, bad things keep happening to Madigan.

Even as he’s under criminal investigation for the ComEd bribery scandal, Madigan’s name has come up in a similar context elsewhere.

Jeffrey Blackwell, board president of the Chicago Teachers Union pension and retirement fund, is in the midst of an internal squabble with his fellow board members.

One issue, he said, involves requests “to hire former Madigan staffers who are now contract lobbyists.”

“Let me be clear. We are not in the business as fiduciaries of hiding Madigan lobbyists at the fund,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell made his comments to his pension board in mid-August, but they just became public this week.

The timing of Madigan’s multiple problems is ironic because, as the longtime chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, he’s on the verge of a smashing party victory in the November election.

He’s got a great chance to expand his current 74-44 House supermajority.

Democrats will maintain great dominance in the Senate, where they hold a 39-19 supermajority.

Incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin seems sure to win another six-year term.

The only race where Madigan has a potential problem is Democratic Justice Thomas Kilbride’s retention run for a third 10-year term on the Illinois Supreme Court.

Just as he has in two previous Kilbride runs, Madigan is fighting hard to save the jurist and maintain the Democratic majority on the high court.

But he’s fighting even harder to stave off the prosecutors and the politicians who, for differing reasons, think it’s time for Madigan’s historic run to end.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.