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Reeder: Madigan is the man who pulls the strings in Springfield

SPRINGFIELD – Twenty-five years ago, I covered my first legislative session.

During the waning days of the session, the words most often heard were, “What will Mike Madigan do?”

Sure, back then Phil Rock presided over the Senate and Big Jim Thompson was entrenched in the governor’s mansion, but Madigan ran things. No one in the know doubted that.

Madigan is the consummate South Sider, a proud White Sox fan, a behind-the-scenes dealmaker. Back then, the White Sox were threatening to move to Tampa.

Newspaper reporters were writing front-page obituaries for the once-proud Chicago team. Madigan remained quiet.

Suddenly, in the waning minutes of the legislative session, the creaky wheels of the Illinois General Assembly began to turn swiftly, and taxpayers suddenly were paying to build a brand-new ball park for the Sox, which they would play in for decades nearly rent-free.

Never mind that the hands of the clock had slipped a bit past midnight when the House cast its vote. A Madigan minion working the podium declared it was still yesterday and the regular legislative session had not ended.

Yes, Mike Madigan held back the hands of time.

Mike Madigan is not omnipotent, but he’s as close as you can get this side of the pearly gates. For more than a generation, he has been The Man in Charge.

Ironically, those in Madigan’s Democratic caucus are as clueless about what their leader has planned as their Republican counterparts.

Republican lawmakers complain about being left in the dark and often vote against his measures. But Democrats, for the most part, feel compelled to follow their leader.

They may not always like it. But they follow. Why?

Part of it is that Illinois General Assembly is a rather transitory institution with members coming and going over the years, but few making it their life’s calling.

Madigan, of course, is the exception. He’s been in the House since 1971 – longer than anyone. When bright – and sometimes dull – new lawmakers get elected, his staff works with them.

They learn quickly: Please the speaker, and good things will happen for you and your district. Get on his bad side, and your legislation never will see the light of day, you’ll get lousy committee assignments, lose opportunities for more pay, and be ostracized by your colleagues.

That lock-step, follow-the-leader mentality was evident last week.

The state budget legislation was dropped in the laps of lawmakers with little notice. They haven’t had time or opportunity – and in some instances inclination – to review the voluminous documents. And yet they are expected to vote “yes” and be quiet.

Nor has there been opportunity for the public to see that the budget contains. This is the opaque world in which Mike Madigan presides.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at

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