By Austin Berg, Vice President of Marketing at the Illinois Policy Institute
Exactly 50 years after first taking his seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, January marked the end of the longest reign of any legislative leader in American history.
Mike Madigan was denied the speakership after gripping that gavel for 36 of the past 38 years.
Forged in the notorious political machine of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, “the Velvet Hammer” was long thought to be politically untouchable. Since 1983, a total of three Democratic House members had ever refused to cast their vote for Madigan for speaker.
But on January 13, 2021, he didn’t receive a single vote.
It was a critical shift in momentum that our state has not seen in decades.
But how did it come to this?
Madigan gave a hint in a statement released after four of his allies were indicted in November as part of a federal investigation into a utility company’s yearslong scheme to bribe the speaker.
“Some individuals have spent millions of dollars and worked diligently to establish a false narrative that I am corrupt and unethical,” he said.
The narrative surrounding Madigan’s handling of Illinois’ twin crises—ethics and debt—reflected reality. And that truth was illuminated through a yearslong campaign led by Illinois Policy.
As recently as 2009, Madigan had a neutral approval rating. Polling in 2012 showed a plurality of Illinois voters—40 percent—were unaware of Madigan entirely or had no opinion of him.
So Illinois Policy got to work, executing a yearslong research and marketing campaign to tell the truth about the speaker’s undemocratic and corrupt policy choices.
The result: everything changed.
Illinois Policy’s 2016 documentary, “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.” revealed for the first time on screen the full picture of how Madigan’s policy priorities were designed to give him unmatched influence over patronage jobs, property tax appeals, gerrymandered maps, political purse strings, and the state’s finances. Millions have since viewed parts or all of the film.
The FBI also took notice of Illinois Policy’s groundbreaking work on the speaker, including our comprehensive analysis of how the House rules made him the most powerful legislative leader in the nation. Our coverage of Madigan’s corruption and power has been viewed by the FBI more than 1,200 times since 2016.
By 2016, Madigan’s net approval rating had plummeted to -37. Further polling in 2019 showed a stunning 71 percent of voters statewide disapproved of the speaker.
For years, community members across the political spectrum asked the Institute how Illinois could end Madigan’s iron grip on the state. The answer was always the same: make his rank-and-file members fear their own voters, and thus their own political futures, more than they fear Madigan.
That is exactly what happened. And that is why building the state’s largest megaphone on policy and politics matters.
Today, the Illinois Policy Institute’s “owned audience” of active users who have opted into our community with their first name, last name, email address, and ZIP code totals 1.5 million. Our website, illinoispolicy.org, clocked 25 million pageviews in 2020.
We use that megaphone to ensure our elected officials respect taxpayers more than they fear the political insiders, special interests, and all those who have put Illinois on the wrong track for decades. Indeed, it helped make Madigan a household name.
Other state think tanks should take note as they work to find solutions to problems in their state. Building an owned audience of people you can communicate with directly and cost-effectively – and delivering consistently engaging content tailored to their interests – will drive successes like these.
Illinois will not change overnight due to Madigan’s ouster.
Without structural reforms he long worked to prevent, the state will continue down a path of higher taxes, worsening social services, and outmigration. For example, due to unsustainable pension promises, Madigan oversaw the long slide of Illinois from one of the most credit-worthy states in the nation to the least—teetering on the edge of “junk” status.
This momentous new day in Illinois state politics should not be just about a new face. It should be about a new way of doing the people’s business.
Commonsense ethics reforms, bringing democracy to the Illinois House through rules reform, and passing pension reform that protects Illinoisans reliant on social services, workers’ retirement security and taxpayers’ pocketbooks all remain as critical today as they ever were—no matter who is speaker.
But make no mistake: Madigan’s removal from power was a necessary first step to transforming Illinois into a beacon of prosperity that shines across the Midwest.
And it serves as a powerful reminder to Illinoisans that the state lies in the hands of voters making informed decisions about their future—not a permanent and unaccountable ruling class.
“Power is like beauty,” Madigan once said.
“Much of it is in the eye of the beholder.”