Serious, intense clout usually only comes into play at the Illinois Statehouse on behalf of giant corporations, powerful political organizations, influential labor unions, entrenched bureaucracies, or other unstoppable special interests.
Rarely, if ever, is the full force of a legislative leader's office deployed to push a bill that is opposed by the powers that be and has no significant Statehouse constituency. But that happened last month, and it occurred almost entirely under the media's radar screen.
Predatory lenders have all but destroyed a neighborhood in House Speaker Michael Madigan's district. Madigan has tried without success for years to change the state law that regulates mortgage lenders.
Several key members of Madigan's own House Democratic caucus have turned against him time and time again whenever he's tried to run a bill to crack down on the lenders - who loan money to unqualified buyers then often repossess the homes, which are then rented to unsavory types. In a rare display of public emotion, Madigan exploded at a member of his caucus a few years ago after one of his predatory lender reform bills died in a House committee. Madigan's comments at the time are unprintable here now, but, take if from me, they were beyond harsh.
Madigan apparently decided several weeks ago that he would pass his predatory lender reforms this year no matter what. He drafted a bill that was completely unacceptable to the mortgage and banking industries, modified it a tiny bit, then jammed it through the House. The industry initially tied up the bill in the Senate, and Madigan was forced to agree to several minor changes.
After those changes, Madigan decided that he had had enough, and, along with Governor Rod Blagojevich, pushed Senate President Emil Jones to call the bill.
The industry cranked up its opposition, however, and stalled the bill until the very last day of the spring session, even attempting at one point to allegedly "buy off" a community group with a three hundred thousand dollar "contri bution."
"I'm bleeding from every orifice," moaned one industry lobbyist after meeting with Madigan's top staff a few days before the end of session. The Speaker was not pleased with the opposition and was making his opinion known to the industry in the clearest way possible: Back off or be forever tainted.
The industry rolled the dice and chose the potential for permanent taint. Madigan, in response, began whistling in individual Senators for private chats and prevailed upon the governor to make several phone calls supporting the bill, which was sponsored in the Senate by Marty Sandoval (D-Chicago). Even with all the pressure that Madigan and the governor exerted, the bill still fell three votes shy of passage the day before session ended.
But Madigan didn't give up. Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson had convinced his caucus to stick together against the bill, even though three of his members supported it. Madigan's emissaries reminded Watson that the Speaker had saved Watson's state prison from closure last year and had passed one of Watson's pet bills this year to loosen the regulations on fireworks sales, but Watson wouldn't budge.
So, Madigan began pounding on individual Senate Democrats. At one point, the pressure was so intense that appointed freshman Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline), who voted against the bill the first time around, complained to the media about Madigan's attempt to dictate terms to the Senate and vowed to continue his opposition. But the Speaker never eased the pressure and Sen. Jacobs and two other Democrats eventually voted for the legislation, giving it enough votes to pass the Senate.
The House quickly voted to accept the Senate changes, with Republicans refusing industry entreaties to stand together against the bill and verify the roll call. The bill was called so late at night that many Democrats had already left the building, which meant that a verification - a parliamentary move to make sure everyone who voted for a bill is actually present - might have made the vote a lot closer than it was. But the Republicans decided that standing in the way of a Speaker who was so completely bound and determined to pass a bill probably wouldn't be a good idea. The bill passed.
Opponents made a lot of good points about how Madigan's legislation was overreaching, unfair, illegal and might seriously harm the mortgage industry. But, in the end, the fight came down to a question of who had the most clout. Madigan won.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.