Democrats duke it out, debate Madigan’s future after losing key elections to Republicans

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Citing a rise in Coronavirus infections, Democratic leaders of the Illinois General Assembly canceled the upcoming fall veto session that was scheduled to begin next week.

In a Tuesday afternoon email to House Democrats, Speaker Michael Madigan’s chief of staff Jessica Basham said most members were reluctant to gather in person and the idea to cancel was “primarily motivated by concerns about the rising COVID-19 rates and proximity to upcoming holidays.”

Earlier this year, state lawmakers wore face coverings and spread out in the Capitol Complex and at the Bank of Springfield Convention Center to pass the budget and a number of other virus-related bills to Governor Pritzker’s desk before a May 31st deadline. Lawmakers still convened, even though the state was experiencing its highest rates of Coronavirus related infections, deaths and hospitalizations at the time.

Despite a successful summer session that resulted in no known infections, Senate President Don Harmon highlighted a recent State Journal-Register headline that described a “virus tsunami” sweeping across Central Illinois in recent weeks to justify the decision.

“This is not the time to physically bring together hundreds of people from all around the state,” Harmon said. “Given what’s happening, it was an obvious decision. It’s not safe or responsible to have a legislative session under these circumstances.”

The announcement came hours after Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said a decision to cancel the upcoming session “would be disappointing.”

“We have so much work to do,” Pritzker said Tuesday during his daily Coronavirus press briefing. “We just have so many things we need to accomplish with regard to the budget in particular. We have major efforts underway that will require the legislature’s engagement.”

The decision to nix the two-week legislative period delays Democratic calls for police reform, clean energy proposals, and bipartisan calls for a sweeping ethics package.

Earlier on Tuesday, House Republicans predicted that if Madigan were to delay or cancel the fall veto session, it could be a sign that he’s reluctant to bring his members together while he remains at the center of two ongoing investigations: one in the FBI and another in the House Special Investigative Committee.

“I think that’s a strong signal that the speaker is weak,” House Republican Avery Bourne (R-Litchfield) said Tuesday afternoon.

Republicans have repeatedly called for Madigan to resign and have pressured other Illinois Democrats to deny him the gavel during the upcoming leadership election in January. So far, nine of 74 House Democrats have announced publicly that they will not support Madigan for re-election. Eight of them won re-election and will return to office in the new year.

“If session is cancelled, I think it means [Madigan] doesn’t have 60 votes,” Representative Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) said Tuesday, pledging to do “whatever it takes” — even if it means voting for a Democrat — to remove Madigan as Speaker.

Democrats are likely to lose a net of two seats in the House once the new General Assembly is sworn in next year. While Democrats would still hold a supermajority with 72 seats, the party’s losses could shrink Madigan’s margin of error to just four votes.

Republican victories at the ballot box included defeating the graduated income tax proposal and blocking Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride’s retention, both signals to Democrats that Madigan’s political machine isn’t as invincible as it once was.

Democrats who largely held their tongues during Madigan’s federal corruption investigation were quick to point a finger of blame at him after the party lost ground in the election. Senator Dick Durbin said Illinois Democrats “paid a heavy price” for Madigan’s role as the party chairman. Senator Tammy Duckworth said the party “should consider new leadership.”

Within a matter of days, several trade unions, including the Illinois AFL-CIO, came to the Speaker’s public defense.

“At such a critical juncture, we cannot allow political infighting to distract from the task at hand: To build back better for the working people of Illinois and all the United States,” President Tim Drea said in a letter. “Now is the time for unity, not division. Through all the challenges and threats that working families in Illinois have faced over the past years, Speaker Michael Madigan has been a firm ally in defense of our rights, our economic security, and the well-being of our families and our communities. That’s why the Illinois AFL-CIO strongly supports Michael Madigan’s continued leadership as Illinois House Speaker and Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.”

Not content to allow others to do his lobbying for him, Madigan has begun making phone calls to individual members to shore up his support, according to sources who described their conversations with him. So far, his outreach seems to be paying off. An email chain sent over the weekend shows several House Democrats voicing their support for Madigan to remain in power.

Representative Thaddeus Jones (D-Calumet City) wrote an open letter to Governor Pritzker, Senator Durbin and the Democratic majority, saying, “Blaming others aint [sic] the answer!”

Jones argued that all of the party leaders, not just Madigan, shared in the blame for losing the trust of voters, and he called on other Democrats to share messages of support for Madigan to their social media pages.

“Loved this letter,” Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana) replied in an email chain with House Democrats. “It’s important that people don’t start doing the bidding of the Republicans.”

Rep. Yehiel Kalish (D-Skokie) urged his colleagues to “Think for a moment what would be if Speaker Madigan didn’t play the foil during these elections,” and argued Madigan has earned the right “to end his career whenever and however he would like.”

Representative Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) already declared her candidacy to run against Madigan in October, though very few of her colleagues expect her to secure enough votes to defeat him in a one-on-one contest. A number of other Democrats rumored to be top contenders for the job are waiting to see if Madigan might resign or fall short of reaching 60 votes before making their intentions known.

Governor Pritzker, a former ally of Madigan’s who has recently suggested the Speaker should no longer serve as Chairman of the Democratic Party, would not go so far as to lobby other members to block his re-election.

“That’s a decision that members of the House will make,” he said. “I know in January, they’ll be taking a vote on Speaker, and that’s their business.”