Mike Madigan (so the rumor goes) will never leave the Illinois House of Representatives, or even risk vacating the speaker’s chair, because doing so would almost certainly set him on the path trodden by four of the last eight governors of Illinois. As long as Speaker Madigan stays in a position where he can leverage his knowledge of where the bodies are (perhaps literally) buried, he might live out his days a free man. A fiercely partisan Democrat who has done even more than the most crooked and incompetent (the two conditions aren’t mutually exclusive) Republican governors to set the Land of Lincoln on the road to ruin, Madigan is universally despised by every Republican leader in the city of Rockford.
The only person Rockford Republicans hate more, apparently, is every Democrat in Rockford. Which is why, decades ago, they took the key to the city and mailed it down to Springfield, where the “Velvet Hammer” (as Chicago Magazine once dubbed Madigan) today wears it around his neck.
If free men, by definition, govern themselves, what should we call those who are so afraid of the spendthrift ways of their fellow Rockfordians that they voluntarily gave up home rule in order to limit the ability of Rockford’s mayor and city council freely to make decisions about the city’s finances? Even today, when Rockford has one of the highest sales taxes of any municipality in the state and the highest property-tax rates in a state that has among the highest property-tax rates in the country, Republican opponents of home rule defend their position by arguing that home rule would allow the mayor and the city council too much control over taxes, and further leeway in spending.
In reality, the lack of home rule has simply given Rockford Republicans an easy out, a reason not to put the necessary effort into building up a local political machine that could rival the Democratic one. They would rather spend their time on national politics, and ceding most of the races for alderman and the mayor’s race for the last 20 years (the last serious Republican candidate for mayor in Rockford was Tim Simms, back in 1997) has made it possible to do just that.
But again, this is not the way that free men live. No man should rejoice in cutting off his own hand just because he cut off his neighbor’s in the bargain—particularly when doing so causes Mike Madigan to grow another hand, to wield a further velvet hammer.
I came to Rockford halfway through the reign of Charles Box, a Democrat and Rockford’s first black mayor. Box was a protégé of John McNamara, who served two terms as mayor from 1981 to 1989. As I leave Rockford, McNamara’s son, Tom, has brought the mayor’s office back into Democratic control after it was occupied for three terms by a Republican-leaning independent, Larry Morrissey.
There was a lot to dislike about John McNamara, even more to dislike about Charles Box, and the less said about Box’s protégé and successor, Doug Scott, the better. (Scott was the first one-term mayor of Rockford in 50 years, proof that even his fellow Democrats couldn’t stand him.) But as much as I disagreed with the politics of each of these men (and, at times, with the policies of Mayor Morrissey), I never once feared any of them. Fighting against them at the local level was always a worthwhile and feasible endeavor, and sometimes we won. By “we,” I don’t mean “Republicans,” and not just because (read my lips) I haven’t identified with the Republican Party since 1990. At least two of the major battles local activists fought against Charles Box (regarding the city’s support for federal control of Rockford’s public schools, and a Superfund settlement, brokered by the Box administration, that protected the major polluters and shifted the cost of cleanup onto small manufacturers who hadn’t polluted) were won without any significant support—and in some cases active, though behind the scenes, opposition—from local Republican leaders.
When’s the last time Rockford’s Republicans managed to win a significant victory against Madigan’s minions? For that matter, when’s the last time they tried?
Free men govern themselves; free men fight for the right to govern themselves; and free men accept the fact that, whenever you fight, there’s always a chance that you will lose. Indeed, the bigger the odds, the greater the potential victory. When you cede the battlefield, however, you can never win; and when you cede the battlefield out of fear of losing, you have already lost.
Mike Madigan fought and clawed his way into the position of power he occupies today. Along the way, he never once advocated robbing his opponents of the power that he knew he could use if he defeated them. It was only once he rose above them that he consolidated power in himself. Madigan may not be a man to emulate, but he is a man whose half a century in political life offers lessons to those willing to learn. And the first lesson is the most important, and the simplest: Man up, and fight for what you claim to believe.