Feds drilling to the core of Illinois power, politics

Feds drilling to the core of Illinois power, politics

What’s important for Illinoisans to know now is not just whether politically powerful people such as Burke and Madigan broke the law, but how the law itself encourages indecent behavior.

Chicago’s most powerful alderman is out on bond. A yearslong federal investigation brought forth one count of attempted extortion for Ald. Ed Burke in January.

But reports this week detailed how the investigation that ensnared Burke also extended to the most powerful state lawmaker in Illinois, if not the nation. Someone was wearing a wire in a meeting with House Speaker Mike Madigan at his law firm. And there may be news of more secretly recorded conversations to come.

What’s important for Illinoisans to know now is not just whether politically powerful people such as Burke and Madigan broke the law, but how the law itself encourages indecent behavior.

Both men are borne of a structural problem in Chicago and Illinois government. The problem is concentrated power. It’s on full display in Chicago City Council and it just reared its head in the Illinois House. Both bodies are national outliers in this respect. We’re freakish.

In his 1976 book “Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers,” Chicago political scientist Milton Rakove pointed to Burke and Madigan as two up-and-coming ward operatives in the Daley machine. No machine of that size and scope exists today. But the governance structure that fueled it remains largely intact.

One part of this structure that played a major role in Burke’s and Madigan’s brush with the federal government is the extraordinary privilege entrusted to Chicago aldermen.

If a Chicago small-business owner wants to put up a sign, fence off a sidewalk café, run valet parking, excavate or build, she needs the stamp of approval from a politician: the alderman. Aldermen are administrative chokepoints where policy, politics and private interest intersect. That’s why so many have gone to jail over the years. Burke will be the 34th Chicago alderman since 1972 to go to prison for corruption if he is convicted, and he’s not even the only council member currently facing a charge.

Burke’s attempted extortion charge comes from allegedly using his broad aldermanic power to pressure a Burger King franchise owner in his ward to hire Burke’s property tax law firm.

Madigan runs one of those firms, too. And according to an FBI affidavit obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, another alderman, Danny Solis, directed a developer who wanted to build on his turf to hire Madigan’s law firm. Solis was a chokepoint. Just as Burke was in his ward.

An FBI agent explained the reasoning behind the meeting in the affidavit: “I understand Solis to mean that by hiring Madigan’s private firm, [the developer] would ensure that Solis and Madigan would take official action benefitting [the developer] in their capacity as public officials.”

The developer’s associate recorded the meeting at Madigan’s law office. “We’re not interested in a quick killing here,” Madigan said. “We’re interested in a long-term relationship.”

Madigan is not an alderman. But there’s a reason Solis felt the need to direct business his way. There is no other state that grants as much power to one state lawmaker as Illinois gives Madigan. In fact, on Jan. 29, House members passed the rules that do just that.

Because of these rules, like an alderman in his ward, Madigan can effectively stop any legislative action dead in its tracks. In addition to other unusual administrative powers, Madigan is able to control whether a bill lives or dies by appointing the majority of the members on the House Rules Committee – the intake for every bill before it’s assigned to a substantive committee. It is effectively impossible for a rank-and-file lawmaker to discharge a bill from Rules for debate or a vote if Madigan wants it to stay there.

He is a chokepoint. Just like Burke. Just like Solis.

Fixing this problem means Illinoisans must lift up their heads, look beyond the state border, observe best practices and fight for them relentlessly.

In every other major city in the nation, aldermen stopped being ombudsmen decades ago. Simple administrative duties such as business permitting are handled by bureaucrats, not politicians. In almost all big cities, a city charter clearly defines those responsibilities. Not Chicago.

Meanwhile, the Illinois House is one of only two legislative chambers in the nation to place such undemocratic restrictions on whether a bill can be discharged by rank-and-file members for a fair hearing.

It’s always easy to focus on personalities when news breaks of another federal investigation into Illinois politicians. Especially Madigan and Burke, who have constructed larger-than-life personas.

But to do so is to overlook the system that made them. When they leave office, however it may happen, Illinoisans must know what fixing the system looks like.

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