An Illinois Dynasty Versus Blagojevich

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stephen J. Carrera / AP

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan walks with his daughter Lisa Madigan in the Chicago St. Patrick's Day parade during her 2002 campaign for Illinois attorney general

Michael Madigan is certainly a man who likes to, and quite often does, get his way in the state of Illinois. For most of the past three decades, he has alternately served as House majority leader, House Democratic leader and Speaker of the House of Representatives. He currently holds the latter position as well as serving as head of the state Democratic Party. And while he can be combative in his approach, he regularly earns as much praise as disdain from the other side of the aisle for his skill at maneuvering the state political structure. But rarely has he had to endure a challenge as politically daunting as now, after appointing a 21-member panel to start impeachment proceedings against Governor Rod Blagojevich, who earlier this month was accused of various corrupt acts, most notably trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.

So Madigan surely couldn't have been pleased earlier this week when his plans were somewhat derailed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who asked Madigan's committee to hold off on interviewing witnesses and exploring the criminal allegations of Blagojevich's two terms in office in order to not compromise his investigation. Blagojevich and his top aide, John Harris, have been charged in a 76-page criminal complaint, but no indictment has yet been returned. (See TIME's top 10 scandals of 2008.)

The move effectively stalled the impeachment hearings that just began last week and have cast Madigan onto the national stage. The hearings are slated to resume Monday, when Blagojevich's defense attorney Ed Genson is set to appear and try to rebut charges he and his client say are totally without merit. But it's not clear at this point what will happen, since the scope of the inquiry has been seriously limited. Still, Madigan may get some of what he wants — federal prosecutors are reportedly considering allowing the panel some access to the actual wiretapped tapes of Blagojevich allegedly plotting his schemes.

Thin and wary of media exposure despite his high profile, Madigan, 66, quite simply, is Illinois politics. Legislation halts, or dies, without his blessing, much the same way as politics goes nowhere in Chicago without Mayor Richard M. Daley giving the nod. His power is amplified by his being the head of an emerging Illinois political dynasty — his adopted daughter Lisa is the hard-charging state attorney general who tried unsuccessfully to get the state supreme court to declare Blagojevich temporarily unfit to serve, and who herself is often touted as a future gubernatorial or even U.S. Senate candidate. "There's just no question who's in charge here," says Kent Redfield, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "There's no question about authority. But he's an intensely private person, and he guards his family's privacy very intensely."

A frequent critic of Blagojevich despite co-chairing the governor's 2006 re-election campaign, Madigan made his position clear early in the case, which broke Dec. 9: "During these six days [since Blagojevich's arrest] Governor Blagojevich has declined to voluntarily leave the office of governor. Quite frequently, I have stood in opposition to Governor Blagojevich, many times alone. However, my record of opposition to the governor and the governor's policies and programs will not stand in the way" of a fair hearing.

Not everyone believes it is so fair. Some state Republicans criticized Madigan for appointing 12 Democrats and only nine Republicans to the investigative panel, which is charged with the task of making a recommendation as to whether the state senate should hold a full impeachment trial.

Blagojevich's colorful, feisty attorney Genson rebuked the panel on the first day for having already made up its mind about his client, calling the entire process "Alice in Wonderland."

Madigan and House Dems were also criticized by some Republicans for refusing to take up a bill that would have put in place a special election for Obama's vacant Senate seat rather than leave it open to appointment. Their defense was that it would be prohibitively expensive to hold a vote, especially since candidates would have to run again in 2010, when Obama's current term expires. (As it stands, no one knows how and when the seat will be filled, since Blagojevich has made it clear he is not going to make the appointment under the current cloud.)

Madigan, a graduate of Notre Dame and Loyola University Law School, got his start in politics as a ward leader from the working-class and politically powerful southwest side of Chicago. He headed to the state capital of Springfield in 1970 as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, or "Con Con" — the same body that helped craft the impeachment rules Madigan is now playing by — and really never left. Over more than 30 years, he has pushed through legislation on such issues as education, electrical deregulation, child-predator laws, medical and mental-health care and, recently, a transportation tax that had him butting heads with union officials over pension and retirement issues.

For all their power, the Madigans don't exactly embrace the notion that they constitute a political line of succession. "Calling them a dynasty, I don't know if that's unfair," says the elder Madigan's spokesman Steve Brown, who has been with his boss for 26 years. "He's powerful, but he wields that power with respect and, more importantly, by talking to people. He doesn't use his power as a big hammer over someone's head."

But his backing of his daughter's career has sparked some criticism, especially during her 2002 bid for the AG's office. Of all the races that year, hers was the single candidacy endorsed by the state Democratic Party and the only one it helped to fund. The now 42-year-old former state senator and lawyer, a graduate of Georgetown and (like her dad) Loyola Law School, took some degree of heat for her inexperience when she won the post; it didn't help matters that she had to return $25,000 in campaign donations from what turned out to be a bigoted rock band, though she did wisely donate the cash to anti-hate groups. "He really did go out and put the arm on people to raise money," says Redfield, who knew and briefly worked with Michael Madigan in the 1970s and '80s.

As Joe Birkett, a Republican state attorney from DuPage County (outside Chicago) puts it, Madigan demands respect and gets it. "I've had the chance to work with Michael Madigan for some years, and while I've felt on some occasions that he has helped ax my bills, there have been years when he has brought them through — allowing the state to do more to protect our children, for example."

Those diplomatic words come from a man many are expecting will put up a fight for the governor's mansion in 2010, when Lisa Madigan is also expected to run. When asked whether he would have made the same move as Lisa Madigan in trying to get the governor ousted, Birkett insisted he would not. "Illinois is currently the laughingstock of the nation," he claimed. It was a power play by the AG, he said, and one that stood little chance of success since it requires some proof that the governor is somehow incapacitated — not just allegedly corrupt. "I'm aware of the rule, but I would not have. It has nothing to do with a public-opinion nightmare, which the governor has; it has to do with a mental or physical disability. You don't use your position as a public office for making press releases."

In short, Birkett claimed, Lisa Madigan attempted to dislodge her rival, whom she never endorsed during his 2006 re-election bid, from office. Well before the Blagojevich case broke, her office opened probes into hiring practices in the governor's office — an investigation she reportedly turned over to the feds in 2006 at Fitzgerald's request. Madigan also earned a regional reputation for attacking the local meth problem by coordinating with other states to help blunt the siege of the drug and impose tough penalties on people buying ingredients to produce it, and a national profile for going after such mortgage giants as Countrywide Financial for defrauding customers with questionable loans. She has been much more willing than her father to open up to and use the media to her advantage. But the Blagojevich case is showing them both that corruption scandals can be a vexing matter even for the politicians standing on the supposed high moral ground.

See TIME's People Who Mattered in 2008.

See TIME's Pictures of the Year.