Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Senate President John Cullerton listen to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner give his budget address on Feb. 15, 2017 in Springfield.
For much of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s term, longtime Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan was a highly visible and very vocal critic.
Though Madigan historically has operated behind the scenes to take down opponents without much fanfare — it’s not for nothing he earned the nickname "The Velvet Hammer" — he took a different approach to combating the former private equity investor turned politician.
Capitol news conferences became the norm, even if the speaker said virtually the same thing each week, decrying Rauner’s agenda as "extreme." Madigan granted radio and TV interviews, calling on Rauner to be "reasonable" and set aside the "non-budget" items he’s made a condition of a deal. The reserved Madigan, known for his steely stare, even headlined a major union rally, highlighting his "epic struggle" with Rauner and pumping his fist in the air as thousands of state workers booed the governor on the front lawn of the state Capitol.
That’s all stopped in recent months, as Madigan once again has retreated into the shadows of state government.
Gone are the lengthy news conferences, replaced by an occasional statement sent out by aides. Instead of appearing on public television after the governor’s big speeches, top deputies are dispatched to offer a rebuttal. And Madigan has rarely been seen on the House floor this session, though the Southwest Sider did preside over the chamber during a visit by the Cubs’ World Series trophy.
The shift in strategy comes after Rauner and the Illinois Republican Party he heavily funds have spent tens of millions of dollars painting Madigan as the all-powerful being who’s the source of the state’s deep financial problems. They claim his recent disappearance as a victory of sorts, saying their efforts not only helped the GOP pick up four House seats in November to eliminate Madigan’s veto-proof majority but also effectively have made Madigan poisonous to the state Democratic Party he controls.
"Here’s a guy who has gotten his way by ruling with an iron fist, and I would say in the last election, that backfired on him," said Rep. Grant Wehrli, a Republican from Naperville. "He was blamed for a lot of problems; that politically takes its toll. But personally it takes its toll. No one wants to be known as the villain."
"If he is removed from the arena, he is not there to take the blame," Wehrli added.
A Madigan spokesman chalked up the speaker’s different approach to being about time management.
"I don’t know about strategy as much as utilization of time," spokesman Steve Brown said. "There are a limited number of hours in the day … and I am not sure his public statements have really changed, and so why would you use your time to repeat yourself?"
Indeed, when Madigan broke his relative silence in a recent interview with a WGN-AM 720 radio host, the speaker repeated many of his familiar talking points.
"The historic fact is that Gov. Rauner — Gov. Rauner — hijacked the Illinois budget-making process in order to leverage the implementation of his agenda," Madigan said. "I did not propose holding hostage the budget-making process, I did not propose that. Gov. Rauner proposed it, he’s done it for two years."
Rauner, too, has tweaked his communications strategy, taking reporters’ questions less frequently and instead relying on more controlled environments to get his message out. The governor appears monthly on Chicago Public Radio and conducts livestreamed Facebook events where his staff chooses the topics.
That’s the venue the governor chose Tuesday when he framed up his ideas on the end of session, again calling for lawmakers to take up his push for a property tax freeze. The Facebook appearance came as Senate Democrats were weighing a budget proposal that included an income tax hike but no moratorium on property taxes.
Rauner took a not-so-veiled shot at Madigan, saying there are people who’ve controlled the Democratic Party for 35 years who "created the system and they have no interest in changing it."
"Not even a little bit," Rauner said. "Because that would admit that they have failed, that would admit that they needed to change — and they don’t want to acknowledge that."
While Democrats remain united in trying to place responsibility on Rauner for the budget stalemate, a divide has emerged as to the best way to push back.
Initially, many Democrats were content to let Madigan do the fighting on their behalf, confident Rauner would cave in the face of opposition from the longtime speaker. Any notion of a short-term battle with a new and inexperienced chief executive has morphed into a yearslong war that’s frustrated lawmakers who have little to show for it when they return home.
Some rank-and-file Democrats have since come forward with their own plans, saying they’ve long been frustrated by the stalemate driven by political and personal differences between leadership. Though they avoid blaming Madigan by name, they say they worry House Democrats have not done enough to counter Rauner’s claims that they are simply protecting that status quo in the face of change, which the governor says is needed to get a budget deal and move the state forward.
"I think the speaker had a very clear strategy that he executed very well for the past few years, which was to demonstrate how harmful the governor’s Turnaround Agenda would be, and to build public support against it and to repudiate it in the legislature," said Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago. "But I don’t view that as enough.
"We have done a good job of saying ‘no’ and not a particularly good job of articulating our values and visions," Guzzardi added.
Still, the ideas put forth by Guzzardi and several colleagues have languished. They include populist proposals that speak to core Democratic Party principles, including raising the minimum wage and curbing tax breaks for corporations.
As Madigan has fallen back, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate spent much of the year trying to strike a sweeping agreement to end the impasse. That’s taken some of the budget pressure off Madigan, though that’s about to change as lawmakers enter the final week of spring session.
Senate President John Cullerton and Republican leader Christine Radogno cut Rauner and Madigan out of their talks, citing their long-running standoff that saw budget negotiations implode in December. Rauner has since inserted himself in the process, demanding, among other things, a property tax freeze in exchange for an income tax hike to help the state dig out of the red.
Cullerton argues there’s not enough support from Democrats for a property tax freeze, which they say would harm local governments and school districts that rely on the money. As a result, major portions of the framework stalled, and Democrats pushed through their own spending plan Tuesday that calls for hiking income taxes and expanding the state sales tax.
With time running out, the question now is how Madigan will approach the budget in the House. He issued a statement after Tuesday’s vote saying the Senate budget will be "thoughtfully considered" by House Democrats "as part of our efforts to pass a full-year balanced budget that will end the budget impasse."
For the last two years, House Democrats passed spending plans that were billions of dollars out of balance. Only one of those plans made it to Rauner’s desk, in 2015, and he vetoed out all of the spending save that for elementary and secondary schools. Last year, Senate Democrats staged a revolt against Madigan’s habit of running a budget through the House at the last minute, opting for an overtime session. That left an opening for Rauner to label the entire Democrat-controlled legislature a "stunning failure."
Weeks later, Rauner and lawmakers struck a deal on a six-month budget that expired in January. Madigan tried to cast it as evidence the two sides could work together if Rauner would drop his legislative demands. Rauner said Democrats simply were eager to move into campaign mode ahead of the 2016 election.
Madigan has yet to reveal how he will proceed this time around. Though he maintains a budget should be considered separately from the governor’s economic proposals, Madigan recently named several of his top deputies to negotiate on those items with Rauner.
Rauner’s office has said it’s skeptical of that offer and has not engaged. Madigan has tried to keep the focus on Rauner, penning a letter that was signed by all 67 House Democrats encouraging the governor to "accept this good faith offer of cooperation, so we can again resume working to end this destructive impasse."
Meanwhile, Madigan’s appropriations chairs have spent the last several months quietly drawing up various potential spending proposals. Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, said the House has developed a series of "principles" to guide the decision-making process. They include passing a balanced budget — which he says will require tax hikes and spending cuts — paying down the state’s massive backlog of bills, making full required pension payments, addressing growing debts related to employee health care and increasing funding for elementary and secondary education.
"It’s going to be a lot of tough decisions," said Harris, Madigan’s budget point-person. "We are certainly looking at income tax, we are very much looking at corporate loophole tax closures."
The dual paths of calling on Rauner to negotiate while also privately drawing up plans affords Madigan some protection against attacks that he’s not willing to bargain should House Democrats ultimately decide to once again go it alone on a budget plan.
Republicans, though, argue it isn’t enough for Madigan to simply go through the motions, saying it’s clear that he’s still pulling the strings even if it’s now from behind a curtain.
"We are not going to get a budget until speaker Madigan fully engages in this process," said Wehrli, the Naperville Republican. "He has removed himself from the arena because he is more concerned with political self preservation than actually getting the job done."
Rauner has even gone so far as to blame Madigan for attempting to derail the Senate efforts — something Senate Democrats previously have tried to pin on the governor.
"I’m very proud of the Senate Democrats and Republicans who are working hard," Rauner said recently on WBEZ-FM 91.5. "And in the meantime, Speaker Madigan and his caucus have been sending over special interest groups to attack."
"He’s refused to negotiate. He’s refused to compromise," Rauner said of Madigan.
Democrats counter that for all the Republican rhetoric about Madigan’s control over his members, it’s Rauner who demands loyalty and has stood in the way of GOP members cutting a deal.
"Despite the fact that he wants to blame everyone and everything but himself for this not being finished, he has the supreme responsibility to get this ball to the goal line," said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat who serves as deputy majority leader. "He is the governor of the state of Illinois and he has a greater responsibility than simply running around the state blaming everybody for his own failures."
And why is it Lang delivering that message instead of Madigan?
"It may well just be that the speaker has decided that the message is being sent pretty well by the members of his caucus and he is probably content with that," Lang said.