In the maelstrom surrounding Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his fight to retain his supreme leadership post in Springfield, much attention has been paid to the drip, drip, drip of state representatives announcing they will not support him.
But far less notice has been paid to the voting bloc that, perhaps surprisingly, shapes up as Madigan’s strongest single base of support: the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.
First, the rebels. Madigan needs 60 votes from the 74 House Democrats to retain the powerful speaker’s chair. As of this writing, 18 Democrats have announced they will not back him. Assuming none change their minds, that leaves Madigan six votes short.
Perhaps the most surprising defection came from a member of Madigan’s own leadership team, House Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Kathleen Willis of Addison. She called it “an ethical decision, a moral decision.”
Madigan is reportedly making dozens of phone calls, reaching out to each House Democrat to ensure their support, or in the case of defectors, change their minds.
But he holds near-unanimous backing from the Black caucus, which announced its endorsement of Madigan on Wednesday.
“There are 22 Black caucus members. And we’ve come out 21 strong that we’re supporting Speaker Madigan right now,” said Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago.
Ask why support for Madigan is so strong among Black House members, and you receive a variety of answers.
“I believe the speaker has shown tremendous leadership on issues that are important to me and my district,” said Rep. Will Davis, D-Hazel Crest, an assistant majority leader on Madigan’s team and a Black caucus member. “One big issue that was important to me was school-funding reform. We got an early commitment from him on that and pushed it through.”
With close associates of Madigan indicted in what appears to be a scheme by ComEd to bribe state legislators, others said the Black experience with the criminal-justice system makes Black legislators more forgiving.
“Black legislators, or their family members, or their friends, have been victims of a criminal-justice system that’s unfair. Regardless of who you are, Black or White, we want fairness,” Ford said. “Madigan hasn’t been officially accused of anything. If he gets indicted, it’s a whole new day.”
Why Madigan has caucus’s support
“They get infrastructure and staff support from him, during their campaigns and during the session,” said veteran political consultant Delmarie Cobb, CEO at The Publicity Works. “He provides a lot of infrastructure, and over time, they’ve become dependent on it.”
In Madigan’s case, infrastructure is spelled m-o-n-e-y. The majority of Black state reps don’t raise much money. And what they have, they get from Madigan.
Then there’s redistricting. With legislative districts about to be redrawn following the 2020 Census, incumbent Black representatives are anxious to hold onto as many Black voters as they can, despite a dramatic drop in Chicago’s Black population.
“With some of the demographic shifts that we’ve seen, it’s going to be a challenge,” Davis said. “We’ve seen significant population shifts in the Chicago metropolitan area. And many of our members represent districts with fewer African American voters.”
No one has masterminded more redistricting efforts than Madigan, building a map that has produced a large Democratic majority in the House while weakening Republicans’ ability to compete. And his Job No. 1 when creating a map is to protect incumbents, Black and White. But while he’s now seen as the savior of Black legislators, he was once seen as their foe.
Madigan’s first hand in redistricting
Following the 1980 Census, Madigan, then the House minority leader, created a new map blatantly structured along racial lines. This map diluted Black voting strength and ensured that White neighborhoods on the South and Southwest sides were not represented by Blacks.
The map created a “Western Wall” that ran along the western edge of neighborhoods that were 80 percent or more Black to “protect” White neighborhoods (like Marquette Park, Gage Park, Chicago Lawn, Bridgeport and Canaryville) from the threat of Black representation.
According to an in-depth account by journalist Steve Bogira in the Chicago Reader in March 1982, Madigan even admitted in sworn testimony that the map was a concession to the racism harbored by Whites on the city’s South and Southwest sides.
“Well, I don’t see that drawing a line along the current Black-White line is a tool to maintain segregation,” Madigan said. “I would say that if you took Robert Taylor Homes and put them into a district with Bridgeport and Canaryville, it would raise racial tensions. That’s just based on my knowledge of the people in Bridgeport and Canaryville.”
The map also shorted Black representation, granting the same number of Black Senate districts (five) as in 1971, despite an increase in Black population and a decrease in White population.
Charging that the Madigan Map was illegally racist, then-state Rep. Carol Moseley Braun and the late state Sen. Richard Newhouse challenged it in court. In a 2-1 decision, a federal court panel awarded the Black plaintiffs one additional Senate district and two more House districts. But Braun and Newhouse thought Black voters deserved even more seats.
And so did U.S. District Judge John Grady, who was critical of the “Western Wall” even though his two fellow judges ruled it was not drawn to deny Blacks representation. In his dissent, Grady wrote, “The real reason for the wall — and it was not concealed, it was just denied the top billing it deserved — was the desire of the Democrat commission members to ensure that the White populations to the west of the wall would continue to be represented by White legislators.”
“I felt really good about the decision,” Moseley Braun said this week. “The court had to find him primarily responsible for the discriminatory map.”
She later became House floor leader for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, where she developed “a good relationship” with Madigan.
That Madigan has gone from being viewed as the enemy of Black legislative power to its protector over the course of four decades amounts to a complete turnabout.
Four decades later
“The Black caucus now sees themselves as having something to lose if Madigan’s gone,” Moseley Braun said Tuesday. “And I think they’re probably right.”
Black representatives are counting on Madigan to help them preserve their seats. But protecting Black incumbents may be more difficult this time around.
“It’s going to be hard because the Black communities have lost so much population,” Cobb said. “You can try to protect the incumbents, but in Chicago, we went from a ward being 60,000 people to 50,000, and we still lost two Black wards.”
The one Black state representative who is not backing Madigan is Rockford Democrat Maurice West.
In a statement, West said he’s looking for “Someone who believes in term limits for House leadership like I do. Someone who will be an advocate for strong, immediate ethics reform so we can restore trust in our state government. ... So I will not be voting for Mike Madigan.”
When contacted by The Center for Illinois Politics, West declined to comment further.
Madigan’s only announced rival for the speaker’s chair is state Rep. Stefanie Kifowit, D-Aurora.
She says Democrats must work to restore the public’s trust in Springfield.
“There’s been less emphasis on solving the problems of Illinois and more emphasis on the politics,” Kifowit said. “I think there’s been a breach of the public trust and the office of the speaker of the House has played a big role in jeopardizing that.”
Kifowit is certain the representatives who’ve announced opposition to Madigan will not change their minds despite the pressure to flip. Madigan has said he’s in the race to stay, which could make for a long, drawn-out battle.
“Come inauguration day, we’ll vote no. If it takes a second vote, or a third vote, or 30 votes, we’re all going to vote no until Mike Madigan is no longer speaker of the House,” Kifowit said.
Former state Rep. Ken Dunkin has an interesting perspective on Mike Madigan’s troubles and his relationship with the Black caucus. Madigan punished Dunkin, a former Black caucus member, for deserting Democrats and siding with former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on a key tax vote by pouring a tidal wave of money into a primary opponent, now Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton.
“You have Black caucus members who are so embedded in the political structure financially that they’re obligated not to say anything,” Dunkin said. “Madigan’s financing your campaign, he’s taking care of your family members the same way he’s taking care of people outside the Legislature. Everyone’s tied in some way, shape or form to his political influence.”
As for the Madigan’s future, Dunkin expressed a sliver of empathy for the embattled speaker.
“I don’t see the numbers alone or the political pressure to retain him. I don’t see it,” Dunkin said. “Despite how nasty he and his minions were to me, I don’t like convicting people before they have their day in court. Even my political enemies.”