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Madigan speaks out on ups and downs with Illinois governors

Michael J. Madigan  speaker Illinois House Representatives Chairman Democratic Party Illinois gave keynote address 5th Annual Elmhurst College Governmental

Michael J. Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, and Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois gave the keynote address at the 5th Annual Elmhurst College Governmental Forum. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: February 26, 2012 8:12AM

Governors come and go in Springfield but “the most powerful politician in Illinois,” Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, stays, his former Republican rival Lee Daniels said. In a rare policy address at Elmhurst College, where Daniels now teaches, Madigan was asked Tuesday to comment on the seven governors he has served with over the past four decades.

Gov. Pat Quinn — whose vetoes Madigan has been able to override — barely rated an honorable mention in Madigan’s historical talk. About all Madigan could say was that his relationship with Quinn is “better than it was.” Quinn was a step up from convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Madigan conceded.

Madigan was most effusive in his praise for convicted former Gov. George Ryan, calling him “very flexible, very interested in just identifying problems and fashioning solutions.”

Ryan’s favorite approach was to gather all four legislative leaders in a room to work a deal, Madigan recalled. That would include Madigan; Daniels, who invited Madigan to speak and who fondly recalled the “two wonderful years” he wrested power from Madigan; former Senate President James “Pate” Philip, and former Senate Democratic leader Emil Jones.

“George would say, ‘We’ve got problems — what do we have to do to solve these problems?’ ” Madigan said. “A leader might want to evade the question, he might have a strategic plan they’re working and don’t want to answer today. And George would just pursue, persist, ‘I want an answer!’ ”

Recalling one meeting, Madigan said, “George Ryan wanted a capital program. There were going to be fee increases, tax increases. He started with me. I told him ‘I’m for it — I think you oughta make it bigger.’ He got to Pate Philip. There’s a favorite method in the Legislature with the legislative leaders. The leader doesn’t want to look at the governor and tell him ‘No.’ So they blame their caucus members: ‘Our caucus won’t agree to that.’ Pate used to refer to his caucus members as ‘gorillas.’ It’s true: ‘My gorillas don’t like that.’

“There was this pause. Ryan just looked at him and he said, ‘You said that to me after everything I’ve done for you?’ And then he took him out of the room, took him into a separate room, and closed the door. There was a lot of screaming and shouting. They both came back and sat down and George looked at Pate and Pate said, ‘Governor, there will be enough votes to pass your bill.’ That was George’s method — very effective.”

Madigan was almost nostalgic about former Gov. Jim Thompson, calling him “a very intelligent person, a quick learner, very flexible. He understood ... that you need to fashion compromise if you need to move forward.”

He sounded a bit less fond of Gov. Jim Edgar, whom he called “a little more strident than Gov. Thompson ... more willing to engage in protracted negotiations in order to get what he wanted, especially out of the budget.”

Madigan skipped former Gov. Richard Ogilvie — with whom he had little overlap — and former Gov. Dan Walker. He heaped the largest share of disdain on Blagojevich.

“That was just confrontation from beginning to end, publicly and privately,” Madigan said. “The idea that there would be sound policy decisions — that was never in the cards. He had a different agenda, all related to what he was going to do later in life.”

Madigan finished with Quinn: “He is very well-intentioned. You may remember he was a gadfly. He was the guy who would schedule Sunday afternoon press conferences. And in those days the media would actually go to his press conferences. Now he’s in a position where he’s governing. We’ve been able to work through our problems and our differences — and we have plenty of differences. So it’s better than it was, I’ll tell you that.”

Madigan seemed sincere when he urged Daniels to think about running for governor.

“Someone earlier today suggested that Lee Daniels is prepared to declare a candidacy for governor,” Madigan said. “He really would make a very good governor for the state of Illinois. Service as a governor of Illinois requires — No. 1 — that you know the operations of state government but especially the operations of the state budget, and that you be prepared to work with people when they make difficult decisions. So, Lee, give it some thought. Give it some thought.”

Daniels, however, said he’s not interested.

Madigan urged Quinn to spell out his state budget solutions in his State of the State speech next week.

Madigan said he supports Republican leader Tom Cross’ bill to force current workers to pay more into their pensions or retire later — even though the state Supreme Court will likely have to rule whether that violates the state constitution. Pensions are routinely adjusted in the private sector, Madigan said.

About half the $4 billion a year the state pays into pension systems is for suburban and Downstate teachers who get nothing from their school districts, and those school districts should have to start contributing, Madigan said.

Madigan refused to answer questions about any role he may have had in four judicial candidates — including slated sitting Judge Tom Carroll — dropping out of a primary election in a Southwest Side judicial district Madigan controls so that Dan Degnan, son of former Mayor Richard M. Daley top adviser Tim Degnan, wins unopposed.

Asked about his own re-election to the House — this time with at least one serious opponent in his Southwest Side district — Madigan invited reporters to visit his district and see the level of support he has.

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