If I had to choose a word to describe the Democrats’ nominating speeches for House Speaker Michael Madigan’s re-election last week, it would be either “defensive” or “joyless.”

The speeches seemed directly aimed at Madigan’s toughest critics – and there are plenty of those out there. The nominators at times angrily justified their own votes for Madigan and their continued willingness to support him while under siege by a hostile kabillionaire governor and much of the state’s media. They literally cannot go anywhere without being asked about why they continue to back Madigan.

For the most part, these were speeches from an all-too-real bunker.

Representative Dan Beiser (D-Alton) told a touching story about how Madigan dotes over Beiser’s grandchild, but he began his speech with an anecdote about how he figured the child would get him in trouble by playing with a toy car in Madigan’s office – a clear acknowledgment of his leader’s fearsome reputation. It was an attempt to humanize a man who has been turned into a cartoon caricature. But it was too little, too late.

Beiser, by the way, was a tier-one campaign target last year who was repeatedly forced to distance himself from Madigan. His nominating speech was the clearest indication yet that he won’t be running for re-election next year. Former Representative John Bradley lost his House race last year partly because the Republicans aired an ad that used video from one of his own Madigan nominating speeches. Beiser’s speech was likely not so much an act of courage in the face of overwhelming retribution, but a way to show his thanks to the top dog on his way out the door.

While House Democrats repeatedly lashed out at the opposition to Madigan, Senate Democrats were heaping praise on Senate President John Cullerton for being, in the words of Senator Toi Hutchinson (D-Olympia Fields), “uniquely qualified at building bipartisan bridges because, above everything else, he has demonstrated a love for this state.”

Contrast that with the speech by Representative Elgie Sims (D-Chicago), which began with a story about how a friend warned him against seconding Madigan’s nomination because the Republicans would bash him with tons of negative ads.

The strong sense of political danger about the vote was widely shared by Sims’ fellow Democratic House members. But, in the end, the members did their grim best to power their way forward.

Madigan began his own speech by asking for bipartisanship, but then he defiantly refused yet again to participate in any “race to the bottom” with Governor Bruce Rauner and appeared to dismiss out-of-hand any attempt to reform workers’ compensation insurance, a key component of the compromise brewing in the Senate.

Madigan’s speech was nothing like the one by Cullerton, who mildly complained that the Senate is often ignored by reporters because “if there’s no conflict there’s no coverage.”

Cullerton talked about the advances he and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno have made together. The two were elected to their leadership roles as the Rod Blagojevich era was coming to an end. “We’ve seen some pretty bad times, and we’ve gotten through them by working together,” he said.

“How about we just try governing for a little bit?” Cullerton gently asked near the end of his speech, after saying the nonstop campaign-style messaging needs to stop. “That’s what the people have sent us here to do.”

That same sentiment was expressed much more forcefully in the House, where Republican Leader Jim Durkin angrily demanded an end to the Democrats’ “gotcha” games of holding endless roll calls purely designed to be used in campaign ads.

Watching the two ceremonies was truly a study in contrasts. The Senate was brimming with hope that it can finally lead the way out of this horrific two-year impasse. The House, meanwhile, is still mired in the stalemate with no clear way forward.

And then there was the lone “present” vote by Representative Scott Drury (D-Highwood), who issued a long and rambling press release afterward predicting that he will likely face “repercussions” for his (mostly meaningless) act, and claiming that “Illinois is in a free-fall into the abyss.”

Despite his usual melodramatics and penchant for self-aggrandizement, Drury’s statement was almost the perfect cap for a joyless and grim afternoon. It is clear, he wrote, that “a majority of the General Assembly is not ready for a new speaker.”

That is very true. Last week, the House Democrats continued the age-old political practice of dancing with the one who brung them. But there were few smiles to be seen.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.

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