For months, most Statehouse observers have predicted a battle royale between the state's three top Democrats: Governor Rod Blagojevich, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Senate President Emil Jones.
The three men haven't been getting along, and the relationships between Madigan and Blagojevich, and between Madigan and Jones, are particularly strained. So far, Jones and Blagojevich are doing okay together, but that could change in a heartbeat if Blagojevich and Jones tangle over school funding. Jones wants a lot of money for schools, but Blagojevich refuses to raise taxes.
At its core, most of the in-fighting is about disrespect and/or perceived disrespect for each other. Jones and Blagojevich believe that Madigan, who has ruled the Springfield roost for years, doesn't give them enough respect. Madigan is not happy with Blagojevich for breaking his word to the speaker time and time again.
Anyway, a couple of Fridays ago, Governor Blagojevich couldn't have signaled his intent more clearly that he wants a fight with Speaker Madigan if he had smacked Madigan's face with his glove.
I don't think Madigan has ever worked harder to pass a bill than he did House Bill 4050, which established a pilot program in his district to run out the predatory lenders.
A community group in Madigan's ward had been advocating for action for years. Whole neighborhoods were being destroyed by predatory-mortgage practices, and Madigan was determined to placate his constituents any way he could. The law he passed requires the state to monitor predatory-lending practices in a high-risk region within Cook County and to require borrowers with low credit scores to take a credit-counseling class, among other things.
Madigan was relentless when he finally decided that the time had come to pass the legislation, cutting deals with or putting the strong arm on everyone in sight. He used every single one of his powers to muscle the bill through both chambers over the strong objections of the financial industry. "I'm bleeding from every orifice," moaned one industry lobbyist after a meeting with Madigan.
The speaker was so determined to pass his bill that the House Republicans refused financial-industry pleas to make sure that everyone who voted on the final roll call was actually in the chamber at the time - proving that even the Republicans understood Madigan would make their lives miserable if they stood in his way.
One of the compromises that Madigan had to make was to allow the Department of Financial & Professional Regulation to designate the areas within Cook County where the pilot program would be implemented. But late one recent Friday night, Governor Blagojevich ordered the department to stop enforcing the law by essentially zeroing out the zip codes that were included in the pilot program. The governor claimed in a statement that it is "clear that the program may be negatively affecting the communities it is designed to protect."
Neither Speaker Madigan nor the bill's principal Senate sponsor, Marty Sandoval, were notified of the action in advance. Madigan found out about it after a reporter called his spokesperson while he was eating dinner at a restaurant. The Madigan camp was furious, and revenge is being vowed.
The governor claimed that at a public meeting held by the Department of Financial & Professional Regulation last year, there was "overwhelming opposition from community groups and real-estate professionals to the impact the law was having in the affected communities." The Reverend Jesse Jackson stepped up shortly after Blagojevich nullified the law to defend the governor's actions, claiming that Madigan's bill "has the smell of apartheid." Jackson said he will push to have the law repealed. Fat chance of that happening.
You can argue the merits of Madigan's proposal for days, but, as with most everything else in Springfield, this issue has nothing to do with the merits and everything to do with politics. Governor Blagojevich knew how important this law was to Madigan. He knew what Madigan's reaction would be if he killed it off without so much as a heads-up or an offer to negotiate a compromise. This was a deliberate action, designed to inflame emotions and show Madigan that the governor intends to play hardball all year, despite his later pleas that he was trying to avoid a showdown with Jackson.
Two can play that game, however, and retaliation is certain. Without some sort of divine intervention, we may be in for the mother of all legislative wars.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and (http://www.thecapitolfaxblog.com).