Late last Thursday night I was chasing a story about the rumored retirement of state Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, Illinois’ first ever female House Majority Leader, when I got a text message from a high-level employee of Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
She asked if she could call me Friday morning about something her boss was doing that day. I said of course, and went back to work.
A few minutes later, Leader Currie finally returned my repeated calls and texts and I forgot all about the AG Madigan request.
Back in 1979, when Currie started her first term, Chicago's House delegation was packed with very conservative white men. But now, "I don't feel as if I'm leaving a void" by retiring, the liberal legislator from Chicago’s liberal Hyde Park neighborhood told me Thursday night. The city's delegation these days is filled with "fresh, bright, able, progressive people," Currie said.
Currie had a difficult time that night singling out a favored highlight of what will be 40 years in the House and 20 years as Majority Leader by the time she retires. Instead, she ticked off a long list of subjects, ranging from early childhood education to civil rights and civil liberties, women's issues, environmental issues, freedom of information, school funding, and even the impeachment of Rod Blagojevich.
Currie said her stamina and energy aren't what they used to be and it was time to "do something different."
Currie took a lot of grief when House Speaker Michael Madigan made her his Majority Leader. Some of her fellow independent liberals viewed her as a sell-out to party-machine hacks. Downstate legislators were upset that Madigan had picked a fellow Chicagoan instead of maintaining geographic balance by choosing someone from their ranks. And conservative Democrats, some of whom were uncomfortable with a female Majority Leader, viewed her as too much of an intellectual who was always championing politically "dangerous" ideas like state-regulated needle-exchange programs to prevent the spread of AIDS among intravenous-drug users.
But she has shown over time that she could effectively work within the system without losing her liberal street cred, and Speaker Madigan is now far more open to liberal causes than he was before he elevated Currie to the second chair. Illinois, for instance, now has five needle-exchange centers. Also, as the country has shifted to a partisan divide between urban/suburban vs. exurban/rural, Downstate Democrats have been disappearing and losing some influence within the caucus.
I finished talking with Currie and went to bed. The next morning, after I’d written the story about her and done a couple of blog posts, my phone rang. It was that same Lisa Madigan employee who’d texted me the night before. I’d completely forgotten about it.
“Hold on a second,” the staffer said, “Lisa wants to talk to you.”
I instantly knew what it was. This was no routine call.
The attorney general informed me that she wasn’t running for reelection or any other office next year.
“I’m ready to move on to a new challenge,” she said when I asked why.
Attorney General Madigan talked about running for governor more than once in the past, but she took herself out four years ago, saying she wouldn’t run as long as her father, Speaker Madigan, was in office.
But AG Madigan told me she doesn’t regret not having the opportunity to run for governor. “I ran for attorney general because I believed this office would be the greatest opportunity to help people,” she said, flatly denying that she got out because she feared she might lose reelection because of her infamous father's horrific poll ratings.
She didn’t rule out a future run for office and pointedly refused to rule out a bid for governor beyond 2018.
But if a Democrat defeats Governor Bruce Rauner next year, that’ll put Madigan out of the running for maybe eight more years. I can’t say I blame her for getting out now. She’s also been mentioned as a possible Chicago mayoral candidate, but I was told in no uncertain terms she wouldn’t run for mayor in 2019. It really sounded to me like she was looking forward to a private-sector career.
And what about Speaker Madigan, who’s been in office almost forever? Several people close to him have recently retired. And then came Majority Leader Currie’s announcement. And then his own daughter. But I can’t find anyone who has a convincing argument that he’ll actually hang up his spurs any time soon. He still seems to be enjoying himself.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.