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Tension between Democratic odd couple Madigan and Cullerton “not personal”

Michael Madigan John Cullerton

Michael Madigan, John Cullerton

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Updated: July 20, 2013 6:52AM

One is the life of the party — a guy who literally performs a stand-up comedy routine at his own campaign fund-raiser featuring spot-on imitations of his fellow politicians.

The other is a loner — a man so intensely private, secretive and controlling, you’d be afraid to invite him to the party, but even more afraid not to invite him because of the power he wields and his penchant for getting even.

Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan are vastly different, yet they have long held a strong public and private relationship — until now.

The recent signs of strain between the two are under a microscope as a result of the Illinois General Assembly’s stunning failure to resolve the state’s $100 billion pension crisis.

The two Chicago Democrats are wearing the jacket because of their inability to resolve the differences between their rival pension reform plans.

The political heat has been turned up so high on the eve of Wednesday’s special session, they agreed to a solution Madigan dismissed as a cop-out last week: a bipartisan conference committee charged with recommending a negotiated agreement.

How did it get to this point between two powerful Democrats with veto-proof majorities who were once such close political allies? Is it ego? Is it all real?

Like most relationships, it’s complicated.

“The dynamic between the two of them is very different this time. They each have super-majorities. They’re very much on equal footing,” said Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Springfield lobbyist with close ties to Cullerton. “There are no little kid tantrums here. These are two very strong individuals with different views on public policy and constitutional implications advocating for what they see is right.”

Madigan’s plan, which is estimated to bring more savings, essentially asks state workers to pay more and receive less in benefits while Cullerton’s plan gives workers choices on health care and cost of living increases upon retirement.

Cullerton’s plan, which brought unions to the negotiating table, is more like to pass both Houses with the majorities needed to be effective immediately. He argues it is far more likely to hold up to a union constitutional challenge.

On the eve of the Legislative session’s end, Cullerton called Madigan’s pension plan for a vote then watched as the Speaker’s bill went up in flames with his caucus, citing its unconstitutionality.

Minutes later, Madigan took a verbal swipe at Cullerton, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that the vote demonstrated a “lack of leadership” in the Senate. For his part, Madigan never called Cullerton’s version before adjourning the next day.

On Tuesday, Madigan downplayed the remark, blaming its play on Sun-Times’ editors.

“Well, I meant that I was very disappointed and that this was a major issue that should have been addressed in a better fashion by everybody in the Legislature, which is why we’re here today talking about it,” Madigan said. “Now, let’s do a new start. Let’s get good appointments to the conference committee. Let’s expect that they’ll do good work, and they’ll go in in good faith and that they’ll give us a compromise.”

The following week the state suffered two bond rating downgrades because of the impasse.

Stealing a line made famous in the movie classic, “The Godfather,” Democrats say the pension stalemate is “business, not personal.”

Madigan said: “My relationship with the Senate president and with every other member of the Legislature is really good, and I really enjoy those relationships.”

“We get along very well personally,” Cullerton told the Sun-Times on Tuesday. “He was at my house last week. It has nothing to do with our friendship.”

Cullerton believes there would be more success right now if his version of pension overhaul was used as a starting point right now.

“Absolutely, because of the support we got,” Cullerton said. “The Speaker’s bill could barely pass. More than two-thirds of the Senate voted for our bill. And we know that our bill can save even more money.”

This week, the Legislature will undergo a series of formalities in which the Senate will reject Madigan’s plan (SB1) and the House will refuse to remove Madigan’s language from the bill, triggering a conference committee. Not necessarily excluding themselves, the four legislative leaders will then appoint legislators to the 10-member committee — three Democrats and two Republicans from each chamber.

Madigan said he will not sit on the committee.

“I want others to share the glory,” he said dryly.

The committee, which has the option to meet behind closed doors and has traditionally done so, must work towards a House-Senate compromise supported by at least six of its members before the measure can be voted on by the full Legislature. Any proposal will need support from three-fifths majorities in each chamber and be signed by Gov. Pat Quinn to take effect immediately.

There are some inherent institutional forces that have so far acted as roadblocks to a pension overhaul. That includes the Senate caucus’ long-held unwillingness to be seen as Madigan’s rubber stamp, whether the question is pension reform or the budget. Cullerton then is put in the position of losing his grip on power in his own chamber and of losing the backing of unions whom he vowed he would work with.

In a meeting last week with Quinn, Cullerton and Madigan were civil but measured in their interactions.

Madigan and Cullerton are still seen in each other’s chambers, interacting with one another. Theirs is a deeper relationship. Cullerton is the godfather of Madigan’s son, Andrew. He watched Madigan’s daughter, Lisa, grow up, served with her in the Illinois House and supplied political troops to help her get elected to the state senate district adjacent to his. As a House member, Cullerton carried the water for Madigan’s legislation while serving as the speaker’s floor leader.

Today, Cullerton wields power by his own right in his chamber yet battles the persistent perception that he is taking a backseat to Madigan.

“Madigan doesn’t view himself as co-equal or sharing his power with anybody else, governors or what have you,” said Springfield political scientist Kent Redfield.

“Cullerton perceives himself as someone who is capable, who is a leader, who is ambitious, who is able to make judgments and lead the state.”

Other Democrats say there is tension between Madigan and Cullerton that goes beyond the philosophical pension differences between two bills, one version crafted with help from organized labor, the other adamantly opposed by union leaders.

“The Senate doesn’t always appreciate how the House has just passed important pieces of legislation, sent it over to the Senate and chosen to adjourn, leaving the Senate with a take-it-or-leave-it proposition,” said a Democratic operative, who asked to remain anonymous.

Republican leaders — including House Republican Leader Tom Cross — have pointed to the deep ties between the two men as evidence to support their contention that the pension stalemate is contrived to make incumbent Quinn look weak and benefit a possible 2014 challenge by Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Many Democrats who’ve known Madigan and Cullerton for years dismiss the conspiracy theories.

Even Democratic gubernatorial hopeful William Daley dismissed the notion when asked about it this week.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago) has a unique perspective. She worked for Cullerton but now serves as one of Madigan’s assistant majority leaders in the Illinois House.

“Very little is personal between Mike Madigan and John Cullerton. They have a deeply-rooted friendship. John Cullerton will remain Andrew Madigan’s godfather. These are two families that have a deep, deep history. This is a professional and philosophical disagreement. I do not believe it is personal one iota,” she said.

“You’ve got two people whose leadership styles and caucuses are very different. Mike Madigan is a much more conservative and cautious person whose more fiscally conservative. The speaker’s goal was to hit a number that would solve the pension problem long-term. The senate bill was designed to pass constitutional muster. Those are two completely different goals.”

Contributing: Zach Buchheit

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