Michael Madigan says he did nothing wrong, and he has not been charged with any crime.

How many times last year did we read those words or something close? That token of fairness to the embattled speaker of the Illinois House, who is a target of a sprawling federal corruption investigation, has become commonplace.

Many who read that sentence doubt Madigan’s protestations of innocence. To them, the federal charges against four political associates in a bribery and influence-peddling scheme have the ring of truth.

They argue Madigan is not fit to continue serving as speaker. He has a right to a day in court, but the allegations alone are enough to deny him the privilege of leading our state government. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called for him to step down, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker has come close.  

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan

Madigan wants to remain speaker, though, and he still has a shot at keeping the job. House members of the Legislative Black Caucus and the Latino caucus have endorsed him.

The speaker’s backers say Madigan is the essential leader of the Illinois General Assembly. His track record of legislation, over most of the past 38 years, shows he can get the people’s business done. Besides, no one else is ready to replace him.    

Let’s take that argument on its face. Forget Madigan’s legal limbo, look only at Madigan’s legislation track record, and there’s ample reason he should not retain the speaker’s gavel.

Governors have come and gone since Madigan first became speaker in 1983. Except for two years, Madigan’s leadership of the House has been the lone constant. As leader of the state Democratic party since 1998—with control over campaign war chests that topped $14 million last fall—he can impose political costs on members who don’t vote with him on the House floor.

The net result of Madigan’s stewardship over that long tenure yields lots of loss for Illinois residents.

Illinois has the second-highest debt of any state, and its unfunded pension liability is second worst, too. Illinois’ consistent record of population loss over the last decade is topped only by West Virginia’s. Its credit rating is lowest among the states.   

Illinois’ gerrymandered electoral map is considered among the most distorted in the country, and Madigan has controlled map drawing after each of the last three decennial censuses. House Democrats may like this—gerrymandering protects their jobs—but bad maps disenfranchise Illinois voters.

The public corruption investigation focuses on allegations Madigan got no-work jobs for political allies with Commonwealth Edison. Jobs for cronies isn’t new for Madigan: A 2014 investigation by the Chicago Tribune found 400 current or retired government employees with political ties to Madigan.

A Crain’s investigation found that between 2005 and 2010, Madigan blocked five bond refinancing bills for McCormick Place. One reason, Crain’s found, was that the McCormick Place CEO had fired one of Madigan’s friends. Madigan sought jobs for cronies at the Metra transit agency, too.

Leaders like Madigan are judged by actions they take, and also by their inactions.

Take a look at the Black Caucus’ criminal-justice reform agenda. The group’s comprehensive bill would eliminate cash bail, bring an end to “prison gerrymandering” that disadvantages Black communities, and give municipalities the power to include discipline provisions in contracts with police unions.

The list goes on, and the question arises: If Madigan were such a Black Caucus ally over the years, why does it take a sprawling, four-pronged equity agenda to fix the problems of structural racism in Illinois?

One overlooked group may yet levy a political cost on Madigan: women in the statehouse. In 2019, Madigan’s longtime chief of staff, Tim Mapes, had to resign his political and government jobs after a harassment scandal. Madigan publicly apologized for lax oversight.

Of the 19 Democrats who publicly have said they won’t back Madigan for speaker, 13 are women. At least three women have acknowledged plans to challenge Madigan for the speaker’s job.  

Never mind Madigan’s legal troubles. His track record alone should be enough to get him moved out of the speaker’s chair.

David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative journalism and policy advocacy.

Greising’s career started at the City News Bureau of Chicago, with stops at the Chicago Sun-Times, Business Week magazine, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. He was a co-founder of the Chicago News Cooperative and worked briefly as a consultant to World Business Chicago. Today, Greising writes on government issues in regular columns for the Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business.

Under Greising’s leadership, the BGA has played a key role in uncovering public corruption amidst the wide-ranging federal probe, starting with an in-depth report about Ald. Ed Burke’s conflicts of interest before the federal charges against Burke. The BGA also has exposed waste and fraud at O’Hare and the proliferation of corruption and poverty into Dolton, Lyons and other Chicago suburbs. The BGA’s policy team has led calls for ethics reform in Chicago’s City Council and in state government.