Madigan’s game of thrones

John Tillman

John Tillman is one of the nation's most prominent leaders of a state-based think tank.

John Tillman
July 31, 2015

Madigan’s game of thrones

Speaker Madigan is playing a political game that focuses on maintaining his power at all costs.

This article was written by John Tillman and featured in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 30, 2015. 

Despite all the news coverage about the state budget impasse, few commentators have told the truth about the fight between Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Mike Madigan. So here it is: Rauner is pursuing an end result that will improve lives, while Madigan’s goal is to maintain political power – the only game he knows.

People are suffering today, as they have for decades under Madigan’s leadership. The Speaker knows this and uses them as pawns in his game of thrones.

Madigan has been in office since 1971 and has served as Illinois House speaker for 31 of the past 33 years. He is playing a political game that focuses on maintaining his power at all costs. He has achieved and held his power because he does several things well: he recruits capable candidates, has a professional election team, has support from union field operatives and traditionally has been the state’s premier political fundraiser.

This formula has worked for decades. It worked better with Republican Govs. Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan than it did with Govs. Rod Blagojevich or Pat Quinn. The Republican governors and Madigan agreed on the rules and goals of the game. They fought over allocating resources and power while always seeking a balance between one another’s interests.

There was one big problem with this approach: It left average Illinois citizens in the private sector, the ones whose work and taxes fund government, to suffer. Decade after decade, Illinoisans had to work ever harder to pay the growing tax bill. The tax burden (property, sales, income and fees) grew because government spending climbed faster than their incomes.

If you were not part of the Republican establishment or patronage army, or if you were not a union member, government worker, trial lawyer or associated with a nonprofit that gets most of its money from government, you were good for only one thing: funding Madigan’s power machine through the taxes you pay.

Unions, trial lawyers, nonprofits and connected business owners all needed to play the game to ensure their own success. They were compliant because Madigan and the Republican governors would pass tax and regulatory policies that forced them to engage.

Blagojevich and Quinn were not competent at playing their role in Madigan’s system of power politics. Meanwhile, the world changed and Illinois could no longer afford Madigan’s game because the cost was too high to average Illinois taxpayers. Things had been going downhill in Illinois for decades, but the descent accelerated in the 2000s when Democrats had monopoly control of state government.

Now, along comes Rauner. The reason everything is different today is because he does not want to play the same game. He does not agree on the rules or the goal of Madigan’s game. You can see Rauner’s game plan by reviewing his inaugural speech, his State of the State address and his budget address.

Average workers, business owners, those suffering in failing pubic schools and those watching their jobs leave the state because costs are too high put Rauner in office. They elected him to change the status quo, not play Madigan’s game.

Rauner’s goal is to level the playing field and put average citizens back at the table. He wants to rein in out-of-control spending to an affordable level. He wants to put the poor and suffering at the front of the line, ahead of everyone, and ensure that not only are programs well funded but that they actually work to improve people’s lives. The goal is to help them thrive rather than stay dependent on a government that has long failed them.

Madigan’s allies are government unions, trial lawyers, crony businesses that want the government to do them favors and private organizations that receive the bulk of their money from government. Ironically, to support them, Madigan has implemented policies that are deeply hurting the key voting constituencies he relies on. All have suffered under Madigan’s reign, but people who are black or Hispanic have suffered the most. This is Madigan’s greatest weakness; his policies are failures for core Democrat constituents. You can’t sustain that forever.

Which brings us back to today, and why this fight represents a turning point for Illinois. This budget impasse is different because Madigan does not have a Republican partner; Rauner is a disrupter. Rauner has his hands on the game board and is trying to take it away and replace it with one in which the people come first. Madigan, and his allies in the media and elsewhere, are fighting this with all their collective might.

For Madigan, it is all about keeping his power; for Rauner, it is all about empowering people instead of government.

When you see the news coverage, remember that those who support Madigan are the same ones who benefit from the status quo.

The question for Illinois taxpayers is this: Will you choose Madigan’s status quo of failure, or will you choose a path in which Illinois and its people come first? Choose wisely, and together we can see Illinois rise once again.

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