Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth called on Michael Madigan to relinquish his chairmanship of the state Democratic Party Thursday, joining Illinois’ senior senator in blaming the embattled House speaker for a series of jolting election-day losses by Democrats.
But the speaker immediately made clear that even though Pritzker, Duckworth and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin – all top members of his party – publicly questioned his continued role as party chairman, Madigan has no plans to give up power.
Pritzker and Duckworth’s statements came after Durbin appeared on WTTW-TV’s “Chicago Tonight” and said Democratic candidates across the state “paid a heavy price” for the speaker’s chairmanship and that “his presence as chairman of our party has not helped.”
Durbin said it is “disconcerting” to see so many Democratic defeats on election day, though the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate stopped short of outright calling on the speaker to step down as party chairman.
“Candidates who had little or no connection with him whatsoever were being tarred as Madigan allies who are behind corruption and so forth and so on. It was really disconcerting to see the price that we paid on that. I hope he takes that to heart and understands that his presence as chairman of our party has not helped,” Durbin said.
When asked whether he favored someone else specifically as party chairman, Durbin answered, “Let’s wait and see what happens in the near term here.”
Pritzker told reporters Thursday that he agreed with Durbin’s harsh assessment of Madigan, who has been speaker for 35 out of the last 37 years.
“The Republicans and the billionaires that sided with them were effectively able to use the speaker as their foil, and that hurt our state’s ability to get things done, and the truth is that Democrats are standing up for the middle class and getting important things done to support them. But it is clear, Sen. Durbin is expressing something that I think is accurate,” the governor said.
Pressed later on whether he agreed “with Sen. Durbin that we need new leadership in the party,” Pritzker answered quickly and succinctly: “Yes.”
Shortly thereafter, Duckworth released a statement of her own calling on Madigan to step aside as both party chairman and Illinois House Speaker.
“The ongoing investigation surrounding Speaker Madigan is an unnecessary distraction and makes it harder to carry out the work of helping the people of Illinois,” she wrote. “As our nation hopefully embarks on a brighter path with a new President, the Illinois Democratic Party and the Illinois House of Representatives should consider new leadership to continue the progress we’ve made at the state level and build on it.”
Madigan’s political operation issued a statement on his behalf earlier Thursday, saying he has no plans to relinquish control of the state party.
“I am proud of my record electing Democrats who support workers and families and represent the diversity of our state. Together, we have successfully advanced progressive policies that have made Illinois a strong Democratic state with supermajorities in the legislature,” he said.
“Illinois is the anchor in the ‘blue wall’ that has been reconstructed in the Midwest, and I look forward to continuing our fight for working families as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois,” he said.
Still, the criticism from Pritzker,Durbin and Duckworth represents the most focused challenge yet to Madigan’s hold on power and is rooted in an ongoing federal bribery probe into Commonwealth Edison’s efforts to curry favor with the speaker.
Madigan, who has been dubbed “Public Official A” in federal court records, has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing. But he is the subject of a special House inquiry into his potential misconduct that could result in sanctions against him.
The Illinois Republican Party scored several unexpected and convincing wins at the ballot box Tuesday, starting with the defeats of Pritzker’s graduated income tax amendment and of another 10-year term for the longest-tenured member of the Illinois Supreme Court, Democrat Tom Kilbride.
First-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood is trailing Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis in the far west and northwestern suburbs in a very close race. And downstate, Republican U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis blew out Democrat Betsy Londrigan, a Durbin-backed candidate who gave Davis a close run two years ago.
Buoyed by those results, the state GOP sent out a chest-thumping fundraising letter Thursday, warning, “If you align yourself with and take money from Mike Madigan’s political machine, we are coming for you.”
After the governor’s comments Thursday, state GOP chairman Tim Schneider said that even if Madigan stepped down as state chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, that would not be enough.
“Let me be clear: a superficial and political demotion as chairman of the [state party] does nothing to end Madigan’s reign of corruption as speaker of the House,” Schneider said. “His position at the heights of our state government is where he derives his power and where he still diligently gives Gov. Pritzker his marching orders. Suggesting the speaker step down as party chair is a cop-out.”
Meanwhile, one House Democrat seeking to replace Madigan as House speaker weighed in Thursday, saying his failures to deliver Democratic wins at the ballot box warrant his removal as House leader.
“It is clear from the results of Tuesday’s election, that Illinois voters are craving new leadership in Springfield that they can trust. Our state, like the nation, is divided on fundamental issues with regards to the continued global pandemic and the fiscal management of the state budget,” said state Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego.
“The people of Illinois crave a state government that they can put their full faith and trust in to solve the mounting issues that are going to have to be addressed soon. To do this, we need to begin a new chapter in the Illinois House of Representatives without Michael Madigan at the helm,” she said.