These should be the best of times for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
On the power scale — the only track he runs on — the Diminutive Don has never been stronger.
As both a powerful elected official and chairman of the state Democratic Party, the 77-year-old Chicagoan has a Democratic governor, a supermajority Democratic legislature, a Democratic state Supreme Court and Democrats holding all statewide offices.
But if these are not yet the worst of times for this longtime political power broker, they are surely not good. Indeed, they are bad enough that he had an extra reason to give his usual short speech last week during Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair and then make a quick exit.
Reporters were present and, if given the opportunity to ask questions, could be expected to inquire about the federal criminal investigation swirling around Madigan and his associates.
If that isn’t enough, Madigan learned this week that he’ll be the subject of another bruising political fight next year when he and Gov. J.B. Pritzker pull out all the stops to pass the progressive income tax hike amendment to the Illinois Constitution.
Greg Baise, the leader of the organization opposing the tax increase plan, announced that the “Gov. Pritzker and Speaker Madigan alliance” will be a key theme in their campaign.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to you, the voter, to make your voice heard in November 2020 on whether you trust the Madigan/Pritzker partnership with more of your hard-earned tax dollars,” said Baise, the former head of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “Be on the lookout for more from the ‘Vote No on Blank Check Committee.’ How do you know if what you are reading is from the committee? Just look for our logo: If you see a Speaker Madigan silhouette hovering over a blank check, you’re in the right spot.”
If that announcement was designed to strike a nerve in the Madigan camp, it surely did. Steve Brown, the usually glib and restrained Madigan spokesman, lashed out at Baise, charging that the Madigan tactic represents his “fourth campaign theme.”
“Baise ‘has become the Spanky the Clown of the new millennium,’ Brown cackled,” Crain’s Chicago Business reported.
Political insults that have to be explained usually aren’t effective. Whatever its impact, Brown was referring to Ray Wardingley, a onetime professional clown who ran unsuccessfully for public office in the Chicago area many times between 1979 and at least up until 2010.
Madigan’s public standing outside his Chicago House district makes him an appealing target. Polls conducted by the Republican Party as well as the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale show he’s viewed unfavorably by way over half of Illinois residents while less than 20 percent see him in favorable light.
But Baise said that, aside from Madigan’s unpopularity, he’s a legitimate target.
“Speaker Madigan has been at the center of every major decision for the past 30 years,” said Baise. “If they pass this thing, he’ll be pulling the strings on tax policy in Illinois.”
Actually, Madigan already pulls the strings on tax and every other policy in Illinois. That’s because nothing passes the General Assembly unless he supports or lets it happen.
Regarding the proposed amendment, Madigan and Pritzker want to replace the Illinois Constitution flat-tax mandate with language that permits a progressive income tax, meaning different rates for different levels of income.
Illinois currently imposes a 4.95 percent flat rate. Proponents have promised to impose higher rates on those who earn incomes of $250,000 or more.
But the progressive income tax would allow them to set tax rates and income levels at whatever level they wish.
California, for example, has 10 different rates, including a 6 percent rate on incomes between $31,000 and $44,000 and moving up to 13.3 percent.
This is not the first time that Madigan himself has become a target for opposition Republicans. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner sought to exploit Madigan’s unpopularity with millions of dollars in election commercials linking Madigan to the state’s well known financial and corruption problems.
That tactic exacerbated the difficult relations between the Republican Rauner and Democratic Madigan.
Madigan claimed victory in that battle when Democrat Pritzker handily defeated Rauner in the 2018 election. Madigan still savors that victory, rubbing it in again last week.
“We gathered together, and we rallied, and we removed Rauner from office and installed our governor, J.B. Pritzker,” Madigan told Democrats at the fair.
But the Rauner attacks and the forthcoming attacks stung him, to the point that he publicly defended himself.
After the 2018 election, Madigan issued a statement that referred to himself in the third-person and in glowing terms.
“Speaker Madigan and the Democratic Party of Illinois are champions of smart economic and social policies that better the lives of Illinoisans and create a state that works for all of us,” Madigan’s statement said.
Two months later, Madigan unleashed a television advertising campaign that praised himself and fellow Democrats.
Having overseen a campaign designed to rehabilitate his faltering image, Madigan now looks forward to more attacks in what will be a multi-multi-million-dollar campaign on the tax question.
Then there’s the feds, who play even rougher. They unleash criminal indictments, not campaign commercials.