Opinion: After Rauner’s F, mixed marks for Mike Madigan


Michael Madigan and Bruce Rauner. (TNS)

By Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

What about Mike Madigan?

Those four words sum up the bulk of the critical responses to my column Wednesday, in which I argued that Bruce Rauner has been an epic failure as governor of Illinois.

If Rauner deserves an F for his first 15 months in office — a highly polarized time in which the state’s economy has worsened during an extended, ongoing budget standoff — then what grade does Madigan deserve?


The Chicago Democrat, who turns 74 next week, has been speaker of the House in Springfield for all but two years since 1983, and has been at least complicit in the key governmental decisions that led to the mess that Republican Rauner inherited when he took office in January 2015 — most notably an unfunded pension liability north of $100 billion and some $6 billion in unpaid bills that had piled up because the state was spending more than it was taking in.

When governors and legislators of both parties wanted to sweeten pension deals to keep labor happy and then under-invest in the pension funds in order to keep taxpayers happy, Madigan was their enabler-in-chief. When voters demanded services but didn’t want to pay for them, Madigan obliged by helping kick more cans down more roads than any other pol.

He passed on the opportunity to put his considerable shoulder behind trying to fix the structural problems that plague Illinois — a flat, comparatively low state income tax that doesn’t apply to retirement income, and a sales tax system that exempts most services, to name two — and adjusting the school-aid formula that has left many low-income districts awash in red ink and is just now becoming an urgent news story.

After Rauner was elected, but before he was sworn in, Madigan, in accordance with Rauner’s wishes but against lame-duck Gov. Pat Quinn’s advice, allowed five-eighths of a temporary state income-tax hike to sunset even though analysts estimated that doing so would blow at least a $4 billion annual hole in the budget.

And even though, when you adjust for population and GDP, Illinois is not a comparatively high-spending state.

For fiscal stewardship, then, I’d give Madigan the same F grade I gave Rauner.

Though he’s not as all-powerful as his critics believe, Madigan’s been powerful enough for long enough to have kept us from being a deadbeat state in the grips of Squeezy the Pension Python.


For political acumen, I’d give Madigan a solid B.

As chairman of the state Democratic Party and éminence grise of the General Assembly he’s built and maintained strong majorities in both chambers, in part by insulating his foot soldiers from having to take the tough votes necessary to run a responsible government.

Under Democratic and, with the exception of Rauner, Republican governors he’s protected his flanks while cutting deals that compromise with the opposition and, occasionally, his own party’s principles.

I’d give him an A for political leadership, but he’s paid the price for having a public demeanor so icy and charmless that you’d think he was auditioning to be a Bond villain. Not being outwardly likable is a liability when you’re in a high-stakes PR war with a faux-folksy governor who drops his g’s and wears a cheap watch.

But Madigan’s transactional style and considerable control over his majority have long been givens.

Rauner ignored that not only during the campaign, when he made vague but lofty promises to impose his Republican ideas on Illinois, but also after he took office. His plan to overcome the inevitable objections of Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton seemed to be to insult and taunt them while precipitating a budget crisis that would cause rank-and-file Democrats to beg him to let them increase taxes in exchange for letting him weaken unions.

Surprise, surprise. It hasn’t worked. It shows no signs of ever working, which is why the governor also gets an F for political acumen.

What about Mike Madigan?

If Rauner had figured out an answer to that question before taking office, he might have some successes to show today instead of an unbroken string of failures.


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