America’s most powerful political boss faces his #MeToo moment

CHICAGO — For more than three decades, Michael Madigan has cultivated an unrivaled power base in Illinois Democratic politics.

He is the longest-serving Speaker of any state House of Representatives in the country. He has been the chairman of the state Democratic Party for 20 years. And he has built a political machine that makes him the strongest party boss in America.

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Older political machines have fallen away in cities like New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, but Madigan’s remains.

“I’m not in charge,” Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) confessed late last year, referring to the extent of Madigan’s power. 

“It’s the stuff of myth now,” said John Jackson, a political scientist at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “Every time the sun rises or the sun sets, it’s attributed to Mike Madigan.”

But now, as the #MeToo movement sweeps the country and women come forward to accuse powerful men of sexual harassment and assault, the 75-year-old Madigan’s grip on control suddenly looks vulnerable.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday, a former employee in Madigan’s campaign organization, Alaina Hampton, said she had been denied career opportunities after she reported a pattern of sexual harassment by a more powerful Madigan aide.  

Hampton said the Madigan organization knew for months about the harassing behavior, and that they only fired the alleged harasser, Kevin Quinn, the day before she initially made her claims public, and produced text messages showing both Quinn’s behavior and her repeated efforts to get him to stop.  

“I was forced to leave a job that I love, derailing my career path,” Hampton said at a news conference Thursday. “My reputation was sullied, and I lost out on key job opportunities as word spread that I was persona non grata.” 

The allegations go beyond harassment by a member of Madigan’s team. Hampton says she brought her complaints first to Marty Quinn, Kevin’s brother, a powerful Chicago alderman and Madigan ally. She later spoke with a lawyer investigating Kevin Quinn’s behavior, though she said she never heard back from that lawyer.

“I want to create a safe space for women. I knew in my own experience that if I didn’t tell my story and this happened to someone else later on, I just wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I had been able to stop it,” Hampton said in an interview with The Hill. 

The lawsuit, filed against Madigan’s political organization and the Illinois Democratic Party, seeks $350,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.

Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said the Speaker’s lawyers were reviewing Hampton’s lawsuit. But he said: “I can assure you that the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Friends of MJM have not retaliated in any way.” 

Days after Madigan fired Quinn, he also cut ties with another longtime adviser who had been accused of what Madigan called “inappropriate behavior” toward a candidate and other staffers.

Madigan’s slow reaction to the allegations set off alarm bells among even his close allies in the legislature. Madigan’s allies privately acknowledge that he waited too long to address the claims, even after seeing the text messages that show Quinn’s repeated behavior.

Madigan’s opponents have sensed a chance to strike.

“It becomes a question of who knew what and when,” said Joanna Klonsky, a Democratic strategist in Chicago who works on rival progressive campaigns. “The boss that [Hampton] had to go to to report it was her harasser’s brother. That’s the kind of thing that happens in a machine.”

It was evidence, some said, of a generation gap between an old-boys network that tolerated such behavior and a younger generation determined to end pervasive cultures of sexual harassment. That generational clash has repeated itself in state capitals from Sacramento, Calif., to Phoenix, from Tallahassee, Fla., to St. Paul, Minn., as the #MeToo movement has grown.

“He’s not the first old man to get sideswiped by this thing, and he won’t be the last,” said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “They didn’t see this coming. They didn’t have a good game plan to deal with it.” 

Madigan’s political machine is so powerful that it controls much of Chicago’s political landscape, including who gets jobs or clients in coveted races. Even Democrats who chafe under his grasp are loath to speak on the record for fear of earning Madigan’s wrath. 

Those Democrats whisper that Madigan does not have either a cell phone or an email address — facts confirmed by a Madigan spokesman.

“Working for the Speaker’s organization, it’s almost like we’re brainwashed. I know that sounds almost ridiculous, but even right now what I’m going through I’m still struggling to let go of the loyalty I feel for them,” Hampton said. “It’s such an elite organization, they make you feel like you’re part of the best organization in the state. If you don’t do your job adequately, you can always be replaced.” 

In the wake of the allegations, Madigan made a concerted — and very public — effort to show he would try to change the way Illinois politics operated. He sat in on meetings in Springfield, where young women lobbyists and staffers detailed their stories of sexual harassment in a capital where after-hours booze-soaked events dominate the social scene. 

“I can guarantee the Speaker’s never had those sorts of conversations with young women,” said state Rep. Ann Williams (D), a Madigan ally who helped lead those meetings. “They were very forthcoming. And he listened actively.”

Bills meant to address the culture of harassment in Springfield have yet to make progress, though several legislators said they could see a legislative framework taking shape.

“The Speaker is a long-game thinker,” said state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D), another Madigan ally. “He’s a lawyer, he’s not impulsive, and he wants to get this right.” 

But change has been slow to come. 

“I haven’t seen any real change. It’s one thing to listen to stories and talk about stuff, but it’s another to execute,” Hampton said.

Back in Chicago, before the allegations, a small handful of Democratic agitators felt comfortable challenging Madigan’s grip on power. Since Hampton came forward, the chorus has grown.

One of the Democrats running for governor called on Madigan to step down from his leadership posts. Several candidates for state legislative seats ran with the explicit promise of voting against Madigan when the legislature elects its Speaker next year.

In Tuesday’s primary election, the candidate who called on Madigan to step down finished second, 19 points behind Madigan ally J.B. Pritzker (D). But two of Madigan’s allies, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios (D) — who is also the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party — and state Rep. Daniel Burke (D), lost their bids for renomination to outsider candidates. 

Tellingly, state Sen. Ira Silverstein (D) was also among the losers on Tuesday. Silverstein had been stripped of his leadership post in the state Senate after text messages showed he made unwanted advances toward a lobbyist.

“There is a reckoning going on in Illinois, just like everywhere else. Many of the preconceived notions of the unshakeability of the power structures as it existed are breaking down,” Klonsky said. “It’s become top of mind for anyone who operates in politics right now. They know it’s a ticking time bomb that can go off at any moment.”