ONLY BARNACLES, royals and African dictators grip tighter. No state Speaker in America has served longer than Michael Madigan in Illinois. Mr Madigan has held the office since 1983 (a two-year hiccup in the nineties aside). For years his name, in elegant black letters on white glass, has glowered above the door of room 300 at the Capitol in Springfield. None of the grey-suited lobbyists who mill in the corridor before it can imagine him gone. Nor can he. This week he arranged for the Democratic caucus to return him, yet again, to his job.
Unusually, he faced some dissent. A lone freshman Democrat, Anne Stava-Murray, said in advance she would not back Mr Madigan. She had promised as much to her suburban voters, after the 76-year-old had mishandled cases of sexual harassment among his most senior staff. For flustering the party, however, Ms Stava-Murray has earned rebukes and intimations that she will struggle to bring bills to a vote.
By what political magic does Mr Madigan cling on so tight? He was elected to the 22nd district nearly half a century ago, in 1971, and has won more than 20 elections since. Despite his neighbourhood turning heavily Hispanic, “Iron Mike”, who is of Irish descent, wins every poll. This year he squeaked by with 100%. It helps that no one has opposed him in a general election for years. One woman who challenged him in a primary, in 2012, had her car tyres slashed.
Embittered editorial writers and Republican opponents call him a puppet-master, responsible for dysfunction in the Land of Lincoln. Plenty exists: the state marks its 200th birthday on December 3rd facing a dire $250bn pension deficit, high taxes, sluggish economic growth and a shrinking population. He dismisses such criticism as “hateful…laughable…a clear failure”, while cheering the Democrats’ mid-term results.
Unusually for a politician, Mr Madigan avoids interviews (including requests from The Economist) and most public events. This has increased his reputation for opacity. As has his co-ownership of a Chicago law firm that specialises in helping clients appeal against property-tax appraisals handed out by officials in Cook County (which covers the city). The tax office used to be led by a pal of Mr Madigan.
Observers say he learned most from his mentor, Richard J. Daley, who was mayor of Chicago for (only) 21 years until 1976. The mayor was the arch-exponent of machine politics, using patronage, control of party funds and backroom deals to out-manoeuvre opponents. The title of a seminal book on that period, “Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers”, also encapsulates Mr Madigan’s method.
He adopts similarly cautious techniques, taking care not to back any bill, candidate or cause unless he is sure of its chances of success. And though fewer patronage jobs exist in Illinois than before, politicians, journalists and others say soldiers for Madigan advance through Chicago’s suburban rail system and other government agencies.
His power over such institutions is as nothing, however, compared with his hold on the state’s Democratic Party. One person who used to dine regularly with Mr Madigan recalls how he spluttered and swore at a suggestion he would step aside even to let a close relative rise to higher office. Another insider complains that Mr Madigan presides over “literally a cult” and that the party goes beyond the norm in snuffing out independence among its own candidates.
A phone call to union leaders might result in a surprisingly small number of supporters showing up to a candidate’s fundraising event. If that fails, a suggestion that party staff might be withdrawn may prove more persuasive. The party can “make you lose at the last minute” of a campaign, says one, who adds that the party demands 60-hour weeks as it “physically breaks” candidates. Others mention that candidates may be banned from talking to the press, while door-knocking may be monitored by live video feeds.
Newly elected representatives—one person calls them “targets”—are also vulnerable. Whereas voters might expect them to oppose the Speaker, they fear being refused funds to hire assistants or denied plum committee chairmanships (which come with extra pay). They can be reminded that the Speaker has a personal say in deciding whether any of their bills will be brought to a vote. “Any lever of power he has access to, he will use”, says Austin Berg of the Illinois Policy Institute, a non-profit in Chicago that promotes small government. He says the Speaker “thinks only of loyalty, favours, patronage and power”.
Mr Madigan is driven, say various close observers, not by ideology but by a raw desire for power. He relishes the game of calculating political odds, says one. Another suggests he delights in the puzzle of composing coalitions of voters to win elections. Several liken it to a passion for chess. Steve Brown, Mr Madigan’s spokesman, agrees with the chess analogy, but chides “anyone who concocts the mythology that Mike Madigan is more powerful than the governor”. He denies that the Speaker has unusual clout, talking instead of his astute adaptability and liberal legacy, for example in getting the death penalty abolished or approving same-sex partnerships.
Yet the pieces on the board are changing. In January a big-spending billionaire, J.B. Pritzker, takes office as the new governor. His enormous funds provide a second locus of power in the party. Mr Pritzker, while campaigning, said he “didn’t get to choose” his Speaker and referred to the benefits of term limits. Do not write off the Speaker yet. But even a barnacle cannot hold on for ever.