When House Speaker Michael Madigan accidentally triggered a patronage scandal at the Metra commuter rail agency, it was the result of two extraordinary events.
First his request to boost the Metra salary of a longtime political worker was refused. Then it became public.
The ensuing uproar has cost taxpayers a fortune, prompted a shake-up at Metra and spawned ongoing investigations into political favoritism, insider dealing and a lack of transparency. Yet none of those inquiries is likely to illuminate the extent of Madigan\’s far-reaching patronage operation or his efforts to sustain his legion of loyalists.
A Tribune investigation sought to do just that, documenting employees at every level of state and local government who work elections for Madigan, donate regularly to his campaign funds, register voters for him or circulate candidate petitions on his behalf.
By that conservative measure, the newspaper found more than 400 current or retired government employees with strong political ties to Madigan. It also found repeated instances in which Madigan took personal action to get them jobs, promotions or raises, just as he did for the Metra employee.
From the ranks of those workers Madigan has built the most potent ground game in Illinois politics, which he uses to influence elections in every corner of the state, from suburban mayor to governor, from county board to Congress.
Political foot soldiers often bounced between city, county and state payrolls — including nearly two dozen who collected pensions from one government job while getting a paycheck at another.
Top political performers advanced in public careers despite questionable qualifications or troubled work histories. And they frequently got better jobs and pay.
One precinct captain went from being a city truck driver to overseeing hundreds of employees in the Cook County Sheriff\’s Office in less than three years. Another political soldier got a management position with the county despite a federal conviction as a ghost payroller. And a former top vote-getter for Madigan who rose from streetlight repair worker for the city to the No. 2 spot in the Transportation Department is now at the center of the $2 million federal bribery investigation into Chicago\’s red light camera program.
Madigan declined to be interviewed or answer questions about his practices. Instead, he issued a statement through spokesman Steve Brown:
\”The individuals who assist in community projects and campaigns have a strong interest in politics and government, just like the supporters and volunteers of any other public official. They share my belief in fairness for working middle-class families, strong and safe neighborhoods and civic responsibility.\”
Nowhere are those workers more important than in campaigns for the state House, where Madigan makes and breaks candidates every election — ensuring a Democratic majority that is perpetually beholden to the Southwest Side lawmaker they have chosen as House speaker for three decades.
As Madigan engages the gears of his political machine for the 2014 elections, the Tribune sought to document how a state lawmaker elected by fewer than 30,000 people every two years built a political operation he has used to dominate state government for decades.
That dominance gives the speaker unmatched sway over state spending — a power that is not lost on public officials when they receive a Madigan job inquiry. More…