By Austin Berg -
Making a documentary about the most powerful politician in Illinois is not for the faint of heart.
Interviewees feared for their livelihoods. Three in-state production companies wouldn’t take the job, saying they couldn’t risk reprisal. The crew that decided to make the film received death threats.
This is Illinois’ political culture under House Speaker Mike Madigan’s reign.
Since House Democrats first elected him to the speakership in 1983, the state has had six governors, more than 200 state senators and 500-plus state representatives. The persistence of a lone figure is concerning.
That’s why Illinois Policy Action produced “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.” It’s a documentary exploring the web of influence one man can weave when he wields such great power for more than three decades.
Madigan was born into this system. It’s all he’s ever known. And it has wreaked havoc on the state.
Rising to prominence under the wing of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of the most important lessons Madigan learned was that building a patronage army was the key to longevity.
After becoming the 13th Ward committeeman in 1969, Madigan quickly began planting locals in government jobs and turning them into foot soldiers for the Democratic Party.
"[I]n those days, when I became the ward committeeman, that was the biggest thing around,” Madigan said in a 2009 interview as part of the oral history of the late Chicago mayor. “I mean, everybody wanted to be a ward committeeman. They knew the power of the patronage system."
His candor is disturbing.
"They wanted a job in the patronage system,” he said in that interview. “I would tell them, 'Yes, we can put you in a job. But you're going to work for the Democratic Party.' ”
It’s no wonder Madigan was elected to the House of Representatives a year later, in 1970. His army has only grown in the 45 years since he seized a seat in the Statehouse.
Filmed interviews with former politicians, professors and political commentators exposed the political machine the speaker has built.
“He’s been getting people jobs, getting promotions for his people, getting raises for his people. It’s what he does,” longtime Illinois political commentator Rich Miller said in an interview for the documentary.
He compared Madigan’s operation to that of mob leader Paulie Cicero in the organized crime movie “Goodfellas.” In return for support, the speaker provides protection for favored workers and Democratic House members.
“Everybody pays tribute up, but from the top down they take care of you. And that's how they get the loyalty,” Miller said.
A 2014 Chicago Tribune investigation in the wake of Madigan’s Metra patronage scandal found more than 400 current or retired government employees who work elections for Madigan, donate regularly to his campaigns, register voters on his behalf or circulate candidate petitions for him. That’s a conservative estimate.
It can be difficult for some Illinoisans to grasp the consequences of machine politics on their everyday lives.
Apathy and cynicism toward the state’s political system have become the norm. Gallup polling conducted just last year shows Illinoisans have the lowest trust in state government of any state in the nation – by far.
The system’s hidden victims are those caught up in it. Those who can’t escape.
The documentary includes an interview with a Madigan patronage worker. He insisted upon being picked up and dropped in off in different locations.
“Since you’re working a government job they know what your salary is, and you’re expected to turn over usually 8 percent of your salary, whether it’s cash or ticket sales or labor or manpower. Your job comes with a premium,” he said.
“I’m talking to you guys anonymously because I fear for my livelihood.”
Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has observed that fear for more than 40 years. “Mike Madigan controls your behavior because he controls your livelihood,” he said. “Most people who see [patronage] want a higher position themselves so they keep their mouth shut.”
The power is intoxicating. And it’s bipartisan.
Lee Daniels is the only other Illinoisan to serve as House speaker since Madigan took the reins in 1983. He occupied the office for just two years. And he refused to condemn the speaker’s tactics.
“I believe in patronage done properly,” Daniels said in an interview. “I don’t believe in giving incompetent people jobs or people who don’t work for it. But you build a force by doing that.”
Illinoisans know patronage builds power. But at what cost?
For the answer, visit michaelmadigan.com to find a documentary screening near you.
Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute, and worked as a writer and consultant on “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.” He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at email@example.com.