After November’s election, Illinois will have another on the horizon with weighty consequence, and this time it’s one in which voters have no direct say.
The election is for the next Illinois House speaker, and for the first time in recent memory it appears there will be a race among Democrats who are sure to again control the chamber come 2021.
For decades, there’s been no contest: Democrat Michael Madigan has held the position every year but two since 1983.
Dissent among the Democratic ranks has been so rare that Rep. Anne Stava-Murray made headlines in 2019 when she voted “present” — not no, but not yes — for Madigan’s 18th term in the position.
But in the wake of a deferred prosecution agreement between Commonwealth Edison and the federal government in which the utility giant admitted to spending nearly a decade attempting to bribe “Public Official A” — Madigan — the speaker will face a Democratic challenger.
Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego is among a handful of Democrats who in the wake of the ComEd scandal called for Madigan’s resignation, and she said since then she’s had growing “uneasiness” that compounded to the point that she decided to publicly announce she’s running for the job.
“Being named ‘Public Official A’ on FBI documents really compromises the integrity fo the Office of the Speaker of the House and undermines the public trust,” Kifowit said. “I just don’t believe that the standard of leadership should be what’s confined with the laws.”
Madigan has steadfastly denied any knowledge of the ComEd bribery attempt or any wrongdoing. While others have been charged, he has not been indicted.
Democrats are all but assured to maintain their majority after the Nov. 3 election, so while a Republican candidate will also run for speaker (Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs currently serves as the minority leader), that’s largely a nominal procedure, though there is a chance that GOP lawmakers could vote for a Democrat as speaker in order to bolster a majority for ousting Madigan.
Kifowit has been a member of the Illinois House since 2013, in comparison to Madigan, who was first inaugurated as a state representative in 1971.
Kifowit said her “skill base is perfectly tailored” for the position of speaker.
“I have a very comprehensive resume. I was a financial advisor, I did substitute teaching, I raised my children, I was an alderman, I served in the United States Marine Corps,” she said.
Kifowit said she would make big changes should she win the speaker’s race, including more fellowship and communication, and she would “engage with the public. And you know, maybe make a trip to Southern Illinois once in a while and embrace the whole state.”
Several Democrats confirm that since the May killing of George Floyd, House Democrats have not collectively met — in person or virtually.
“Systemic racism is top on my list, along with a true criminal justice reform. I think the role of speaker is one of facilitating and one of supporting and one of actually advocating for, instead of being behind the scenes or behind-the-curtain kind of person,” she said.
Madigan did not grant WTTW News’ longstanding request for an interview but provided a statement.
“I have spent my entire career supporting Democrats, regardless of differences in perspective within our party. We are at a critical juncture in our country, and all of us should be focused on coming together to defeat Donald Trump and repair the hate and division he has sown in our communities,” Madigan said. “We have a lot of work to do, and I’m focused on the November election and addressing the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the workers, families and people of Illinois.”
Both Kifowit and Madigan are among the majority of House candidates without any general election opponent in November, so getting to the point of running for speaker should present no problem.
The matter of who will have support among their peers is another matter.
One can’t ignore Madigan’s track record of winning the speaker’s seat; he also controls the Democratic Party of Illinois, and its campaign purse strings, so chances are that newly elected Democrats will arrive in Springfield owing him one. Backers admire his political savvy and institutional knowledge.
Kifowit, meanwhile, has not had any fellow Democrats openly endorse her candidacy.
“I do believe that there are people that are out there that support me, but given the nature and given the stress and the intimidation and that culture I don’t blame them for not wanting to stand up there” beside her when she announced her bid, Kifowit said.
Some Democrats have expressed frustration about Kifowit’s timing, alleging that it could provide fodder to the GOP heading into the election.
It’s also possible other Democrats may enter the race.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky