Longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan is arguably Illinois' most dominant Democrat, but a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll finds many voters weary of the power and influence he had wielded for nearly three decades in the office.
Only 16 percent hold a favorable view of Madigan, compared with 35 percent who viewed him unfavorably. At the same time, only 22 percent of respondents approved of the job he was doing as speaker, compared with 40 percent who disapproved.
But as Republicans try to vilify Madigan as the source of the state's problems this fall, the poll numbers reveal the challenge they face in making that issue stick. The 70-year-old Southwest Side lawmaker remains an unknown to many people across Illinois: While 90 percent said they are familiar with Madigan, 40 percent didn't have a favorable or unfavorable view of him, and 38 percent said they had no opinion on whether they approved of his job performance as speaker.
Madigan benefits from holding a powerful office that voters don't elect him to but effectively decide each time Democrats win a majority of the 118 individual House races across Illinois. He has served as speaker since 1982 with the exception of two years in the mid-1990s when Republicans gained control.
Known as "The Velvet Hammer" for being able to beat down opponents before they feel it, Madigan single-handedly decides which legislation House lawmakers will consider and dispenses with the rest.
Madigan also has served as chairman of the state Democratic Party since 1998, a position that has allowed him to help funnel dollars into state legislative races, bankrolling the loyalty of elected Democrats for their vote for speaker.
In addition, the Tribune has examined the confluence of Madigan's public and private careers in a series of stories outlining his sway in state and local politics and showing that his control over legislation in Springfield has repeatedly benefited clients of his Chicago property tax law firm.
Madigan may be getting more attention this year than he ever has since his first election to the General Assembly in 1970. His visage is on Republican attack mailers and campaign ads, and the state GOP has made "Fire Madigan" its credo in offering up merchandise ranging from buttons to pet wear with the message.
But even more than one-third of voters in the poll who identified themselves as Republicans said they had no view of Madigan or had no opinion on his job performance.
The negative attitudes toward Madigan could affect the political future of his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has often been mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for governor. During the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., where he chaired the Illinois delegation, the House speaker said he saw no reason to step down if his daughter sought the governor's office.
Of those who do have an opinion about Madigan, the views are decidedly negative.
Voters in his home city of Chicago gave Madigan his highest marks, with 35 percent approving of his job as speaker and 30 percent viewing him favorably. Still, in the city where he has proved to be such a major political force, more than a third had no opinion.
Suburban voters held the most negative views of Madigan. Only 13 percent of voters in suburban Cook County and the Republican-leaning collar counties had a favorable impression of the Chicago Democrat. In contrast, 45 percent of voters in suburban Cook and 50 percent of collar county voters view him unfavorably. Once again, more than 3 in 10 voters had no opinion.
The suburban negatives grew harsher when respondents were asked about Madigan's job performance. Fully 53 percent of voters in suburban Cook and 52 percent in collar counties voters disapproved.
Downstate, more than half of voters expressed no opinion on how they viewed Madigan, and 46 percent said they could not rate his job performance. Among those who expressed an opinion, more viewed him negatively than positively.
The poll showed even those voters who called themselves Democrats across the state had mixed views of Madigan. About a quarter viewed him favorably, compared with 22 percent who did not, and he held a favorable job rating from 32 percent, compared with 28 percent who disapproved.
But among independent voters, who often can swing elections in Illinois, only 8 percent had a favorable impression of Madigan, while 42 percent viewed him unfavorably. Another 44 percent had no opinion.
The survey of 700 likely voters was conducted Oct. 4-8 and has an error margin of 3.7 percentage points.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun