Michael Madigan has been the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives for 35 of the last 37 years. Whether the embattled, but still powerful Democrat from the Southwest Side of Chicago will continue in that post when the 102nd General Assembly convenes next month is very much an open question. 

Right now, Madigan doesn’t have the votes to be re-elected speaker, because 19 House Democrats, 13 of whom are women, have declared that they want new leadership and will not vote for Madigan next year leaving the speaker at least six votes short of the 60 he needs.

But local state representatives are backing Madigan for now while keeping their options open and calling for unity in the House Democratic caucus. 

State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) was one of six state representatives, all considered Madigan allies, who sent a letter last week asking for unity to their 19 anti-Madigan colleagues. 

Zalewski’s 23rd District includes Riverside north of the BNSF tracks and much of Brookfield.

Although the letter did not specifically endorse Madigan, it noted that many members of the House caucus do not agree with the 19 and painted a grim scenario implying that the House needs an experienced leader at the helm.

Zalewski told the Landmark last week that while he is committed to voting for Madigan for now, he is also keeping an open mind as the process plays out.

“I have privately told the speaker that if he’s a candidate for re-election I plan to support him, but as I write in the letter, I’m very cognizant of the fact that very many of my colleagues have indicated that they’re not ready to support him,” Zalewski said. “The future of the caucus is very important to me, regardless of who the speaker is. There’s no predisposition here and we’re going to work through what we can do to fix this. I’ll abide by whatever the caucus decides, I’ll put it that way.”

Two days after receiving the letter from Zalewski and the five other Madigan allies, the 19 issued a response, stating that they are holding firm in their opposition to Madigan.

“While we may have come to this place in different ways and for different reasons, we are unified in our belief that our caucus needs new leadership and that we will be voting for a new speaker in the 102nd General Assembly,” said the letter signed by all 19 Democratic opponents of Madigan.

Opposition to Madigan has snowballed since Commonwealth Edison entered into a deferred prosecution agreement last summer, admitting that the company engaged in a near decade-long scheme to influence Madigan by giving contracts and jobs, often requiring little or no work, to associates and allies of Madigan. 

One of those contracts, according to court filings, went to Zalewski’s father, also named Michael Zalewski, who allegedly was awarded a $5,000 a month lobbying contract through an intermediary after the elder Zalewski resigned as Chicago’s 23rd Ward alderman, allowing a Madigan ally to be appointed to the post. The Zalewskis and Madigan have been longtime allies.

Many Democrats believe that Madigan, who also serves as the chairman of Illinois Democratic Party, has become a political liability, pointing to the defeat of the constitutional amendment that would have allowed Illinois to enact a graduated state income tax and other disappointing results in the November election for Democrats.

The only House Democrat other than Madigan who has announced a run for speaker is three-term incumbent Stephanie Kifowit (D-Aurora), but few observers think that Kifowit has a realistic shot at becoming speaker.

“I just don’t think she has the institutional knowledge nor the relationships in Springfield to help get things done,” said state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago) whose 8th District includes all of North Riverside and a fraction of northwest Brookfield. 

Last week the House Black Caucus endorsed Madigan for another term as speaker.

“The choice between the two is clear and that’s where I stand. That’s where all the other members who are not part of the 19 stand at this point,” said Ford, a member of the Black Caucus.

Ford says the state faces daunting challenges and this might not be the right time for a new speaker, noting that Madigan has a record of getting things done and has strong relationships with powerful interest groups such as labor unions.

“There’s no doubt his days are numbered, but we’re in a pandemic right now,” Ford said. “We’ve got a pandemic going on, we’ve got a budget crisis, we have remapping going on in the state.”

Still, said Ford, there are other House Democrats who have the ability to be speaker.

“There are multiple people in the House right now who can do it,” Ford said. “Mike Madigan is not the only one that has the ability to convene the House of Representatives and help get an agenda through the House.”

But no strong challenger to Madigan has emerged, and Ford predicted that some of the 19 Madigan opponents would rethink their positions if there’s a stalemate.

“I predict that some of the 19 will flip if there are no other people stepping up to run for speaker that’s viable,” Ford said. “They won’t be happy about it, but as I’ve long I’ve been in session I’ve voted for things that I’ve had to hold my nose for many times, and that could very well happen with this.”

Two other legislators who represent the Landmark coverage area in the Illinois House, Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) and Edgar Gonzalez (D-Chicago) are neither part of the anti-Madigan 19 nor signatories to the unity letter.

Hernandez’s 24th District includes a narrow corridor through Riverside along the BNSF tracks, Hollywood and central Brookfield. Gonzalez’s 21st District includes Riverside south of the BNSF tracks.

Gonzalez said he hasn’t made a decision about the speakers race yet. He said that he thinks it’s important for the Latino Caucus’ nine members to act together to maximize their power. The caucus will meet on Dec. 17. 

“What I’m really trying to do right now is make sure that I work in conjunction with other members of the Latino Caucus,” Gonzalez said. “I think right now, now more than ever, it’s very important for us to stay united because collectively we have a much more powerful voice.”

Attempts to obtain comment from both Hernandez prior to the Landmark’s print deadline were unsuccessful.

Zalewski says he is hoping for unity as the process plays out. He said he hopes House Democrats can come to consensus about who should be speaker before the new General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13.

“We just have to get together and talk and start a dialogue and the sooner we do that the better it is for the state,” said Zalewski, noting that the entire House Democratic caucus has not met since May. “I think there is a lot of inherent danger in not having this resolved by the time we return to Springfield [on] Jan 13.” 

Zalewski said there is no chance he will be elected speaker as a compromise choice.

“I will not be speaker,” Zalewski said. “The Democratic caucus is not going to put in another guy named Mike from the Southwest Side.”

Ford said that even if the 78-year-old Madigan wins another term as speaker, he hopes Madigan will realize that his days are numbered.

“It’s my hope that Mike Madigan is able to see the tea leaves and make this his hurrah,” Ford said.