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New book examines the rule of the 'velvet hammer,' former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan

Mike Madigan, as seen on the cover of "The House That Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois' Velvet Hammer." (Courtesy)
Mike Madigan, as seen on the cover of "The House That Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois' Velvet Hammer." (Courtesy)

Michael Madigan was the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives for 36 years — the longest reign of any legislative leader in the country.

A new book tells the story of his rise from Chicago machine politics and his fall from grace amid a corruption investigation. It’s called “The House That Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer.”

Here & Now‘s Celeste Headlee speaks with the book’s author, Ray Long, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Book excerpt: ‘The House That Madigan Built’

By Ray Long

What does the speaker think?

At the Illinois Capitol, the question loomed over every major issue. The question came in over the phone, got whispered in the hallway, popped up at a committee hearing and rolled out in a press conference. It is a simple query, of course, expected to be asked in statehouses all across America. In Illinois, though, the answer carried far greater weight. For in Illinois politics, the speaker’s moves at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st provided a road map for how Illinois got to where we are today.

Have you talked to the speaker about your legislation? Can you get your bill through the House? What’s he going to do next? What does he want?

These questions dominated internal debate in Springfield, be it on guns, pensions, education, gay rights or taxes — before a vote was contemplated, let alone taken. They were asked time after time — by Democrats and Republicans, ranking lawmakers and rookies, lobbyists, labor and business leaders, reporters and editors, generations of governors and, yes, mayors of Chicago.

All wanted to know the positions of the secretive man who did more to shape Illinois politics, government and laws than anyone in the last half century: House Speaker Michael Joseph Madigan, chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, committeeman of Chicago’s 13th Ward, lifelong resident of the city’s Southwest Side. Wielding the gavel for all but two years from 1983 to early 2021, making him the nation’s longest-serving speaker, Madigan built the House where he ruled. But in a larger sense, he built the house Illinoisans live in. What the speaker thought became more than an academic question. The answer gave the best clues for politicians who wondered which ideas would succeed or suffocate.

Lori Lightfoot recognized that dynamic even before she took the oath of office as Chicago’s mayor in 2019. After meeting with rookie Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, she went to the speaker’s Capitol suite and addressed the House. When she emerged from Madigan’s office, Lightfoot offered no apologies to her far-left critics long tired of the speaker’s Springfield reign. She gave a carefully worded comment to reporters eager to hear what went down between the incoming Democratic mayor — the Black, openly gay, progressive, former federal prosecutor — and the all-powerful speaker — a straight, white Democrat schooled in Irish, ward-style politics a half-century earlier by Mayor Richard J. Daley, the party boss who perfected the Chicago machine. “The speaker occupies an important space in state government,” Lightfoot said. “We’re not going to be aligned on every issue, but he’s an important person to the city of Chicago.”

Understated, to be sure, Lightfoot’s neutral remarks nodded to the clear political and practical realities: Loved, revered, hated or feared, Madigan commanded an outsized role.

It all played into the Madigan Mystique — which still exists somewhere between real and perceived power. Whether one viewed Madigan as a genius, a jerk or both — and plenty of people populated each camp — he managed consistently to mesmerize his admirers and frustrate his foes. Madigan’s political opponents found themselves beaten down so often by his persistent but subtle force that he became known early on as “The Velvet Hammer.” He underscored the nickname when he first lifted the wooden gavel as speaker in 1983 and called the House to order.

Instead of the hammerlike slams that his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, often used to quiet the chamber, Madigan held the mallet end of the gavel and tapped the handle lightly. To the astonishment of lawmakers, the House went silent. Madigan grinned. “This is a new era,” he said.

Madigan long wanted to be a powerful leader, much in the form of his mentor, the first Mayor Daley. “The person that finds themselves as a leader in the legislature is pretty much in the position to shape exactly how they wish to perform their job. They can be strong or they can be weak. Active or passive. In my case, I decided years ago that I wanted to be a strong legislative leader, an active legislative leader,” Madigan once said. “I would hope that, acting from a position of strength, that I do good things, not bad things. I would hope.”

Over the years, he has been seen as conservative, moderate and liberal — depending on the time and the topic. A social conservative early on that fit with his Catholic upbringing, the speaker opened up as the members in his caucus pushed to lead a chamber that voted for same-sex marriage, an expansion of abortion rights and a ban on the death penalty. Once representing a heavily white enclave on the Southwest Side, he still racked up big wins when the population tilted Hispanic. He fought to scale back public pension benefits for public employees, but then labor rallied around him when he rebuffed aggressive efforts to roll back union rights. That could be why he shunned labels. “I always classified myself as a Democrat,” Madigan told radio reporters following the 2016 Democratic Convention. “I don’t use an adjective when I describe my political party. I’m a Democrat.”

From “The House that Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer” by Ray Long. This piece was originally adapted for The Chicago Tribune. Copyright 2022 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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