“The Velvet Hammer” on Friday was left looking more like a nail.
As Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was implicated as a key figure in a sprawling bribery scheme outlined in federal charges against ComEd, allies and opponents alike took their swings at the state’s longtime alpha political power player.
And while the Southwest Side Democrat hasn’t been charged, many are wondering if Friday’s crescendo in the long-swirling public corruption case could end up being the last nail in the coffin of Madigan’s record-breaking 37-year reign in Springfield.
A “furious” Gov. J.B. Pritzker — who has relied in part on Madigan to help shepherd massive pieces of legislation through the General Assembly during his freshman term — said “the speaker has a lot that he needs to answer for.”
“This is very upsetting, and I think about the possibility of people committing these kinds of wrongdoing,” the Democratic governor said at a Waukegan news conference. “People who are in public service need to live up to the integrity of the job that they’re asked to do. And so if it turns out that these things are true, he’s going to have to resign.”
State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, said Madigan should resign if he is indicted.
“We can’t allow this shameful behavior to continue — especially from someone who has a lead role in both the General Assembly and throughout the state. The continuous ethics and legal violations have been swept under the rug for far too long,” Bush said.
Madigan’s rival across the aisle, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, called the latest allegations “troubling and downright depressing,” bringing about “a day of awakening for citizens of Illinois.”
“The deep federal investigations into the highest members of the Democratic Party and their abuse of the Cook County property tax system is finally coming to light,” the Western Springs Republican said. “For too long, one man, Speaker Madigan, has held so much power, and the old axiom holds true: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Madigan, who is also state Democratic Party chairman, has wielded the gavel in Springfield longer than any statehouse speaker in U.S. history, earning the nickname “The Velvet Hammer” for his quiet but effective dominance.
A Madigan spokesman said Friday the speaker has “engaged in no wrongdoing here” and “has done nothing criminal or improper.”
Durkin agreed with others that Madigan should resign if the allegations are proved true. Other Republicans said that whether or not Madigan ends up facing criminal charges is immaterial, arguing he “should spare the citizens of Illinois by resigning immediately.”
“The people of Illinois cannot afford this scandal to drag on for months and years,” Illinois Republican Party chairman Tim Schenider said.
A trio of downstate GOP House members joined the chorus calling for an immediate resignation, saying Madigan “has ruled Illinois long enough.”
“The ComEd saga proves beyond a shadow of doubt that Speaker Madigan is corrupt,” read a statement from state Reps. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, Chris Miller, R-Oakland, and Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City.
“In recent months, several of Madigan’s top male lieutenants have been forced to resign due to allegations of acting inappropriately with some of their female colleagues. One by one individuals close to Madigan have fallen on the sword to protect his regime. How many more of these abuses of power are we going to allow let stand without doing anything about it?”
Chicago Democratic state Rep. Kelly Cassidy — a key figure behind legalizing recreational marijuana in Illinois and other landmark pieces of legislation — also pointed to the sexual harassment scandal that sent shockwaves through Madigan’s empire two years ago.
“The conduct alleged is outrageous, and comes at the end of a long chain of unacceptable breaches of public trust not unlike the pattern of ‘lather, rinse, repeat’ I referenced a few years ago in discussing the allegations of sexual harassment in his office,” Cassidy said. “If any of these allegations are true and Speaker Madigan or those closest to him are involved, then he must resign. The House Democratic Caucus elected him, and we deserve his forthright answer to all the questions that have been festering for far too long. But so do the people of the state of Illinois.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot declined to weigh in on the speaker’s situation at a news conference, but called the case against ComEd “deeply disturbing” and cited her experience as a federal prosecutor in underlining the “thorough and meticulous work that goes into the scale of this kind of investigation and this type of agreement.”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who doubles as the county’s Democratic chairman, was more direct, saying “if what is being alleged is true, then he must step down.”
“I’m deeply disturbed that we find ourselves in this place — yet again,” Preckwinkle said. “Today’s reports regarding ComEd and the implications regarding Speaker Madigan’s involvement erode the public’s trust in our elected officials and in government. Corruption has no place here.”