Miller: Radogno was a rarity in Illinois politics

Jul 03, 2017

Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno was the first ever female leader of a state legislative caucus in Illinois. That alone puts her in the history books.

But she’s also a decent human being, something that often seems in short supply around the Statehouse.

The fact that several Senate Democrats showed up for her press conference last week to announce she was resigning and then took turns hugging her after it was over demonstrated the deep well of respect and admiration she had built in the building. She even got a hug from House Speaker Michael Madigan after she told her fellow legislative leaders she was resigning in two days. Madigan isn’t the hugging type, at least not at work.

Legislative leaders, even minority leaders, have big offices, large staffs and, usually, egos to match. But Radogno was genuinely surprised at how many reporters showed up for her resignation press conference.

Her retirement was huge news because she has sparred behind the scenes with Gov. Bruce Rauner all year and reporters figured that had something to do with it. Rauner, a fellow Republican, repeatedly derailed Radogno’s efforts to devise a “grand bargain” with Senate President John Cullerton that was supposed to end the stalemate Rauner created by refusing to negotiate or even present a balanced budget. Tellingly, Radogno did not mention Rauner in her resignation letter, but she denied to reporters that her differences with the governor had anything to do with her leaving.

Gov. Rauner always treated Radogno and her Senate Republican caucus with a heavy hand. Just weeks after he was sworn into office in 2015, he met with Radogno’s Republican Senators in a back room at Springfield’s Saputo’s restaurant and delivered a couple of stern warnings.

Rauner reportedly referenced the $20 million sitting in his campaign fund at the time and said he wanted to be their partner in the upcoming session and would support those who supported him.

And then the hammer came down. Multiple credible sources told me the governor informed the Senate Republicans he would ask for their votes on ten issues and that he absolutely needed all of their votes on all ten items. Not five, not seven. Ten. And if anyone in the room didn’t vote for all ten, then they’d have a “[expletive that begins with an ‘F’ and ends with an ‘ing’] problem” with him.

The governor also warned his audience not to leak anything about the meeting to me. Anyone who talked, he said, would have a “[same expletive as above] problem” with him.

The Statehouse tradition is that a governor can try to influence legislators, but can’t try to control them, particularly against the wishes of their own chamber leaders. But Rauner showed right away that he wasn’t concerned with such niceties. And when Radogno started working with Cullerton, Rauner wouldn’t allow any legislation to pass without his blessing. And he didn’t bless much.

Because of Rauner, the grand bargain turned into something it was never intended to be. It was sparked last December after yet another horrible meeting with Rauner and the equally intransigent House Speaker Michael Madigan. Their idea was to find a way to get things moving after a year and a half of total governmental and legislative impasse. Radogno and Cullerton wanted to come up with a Senate-centric, bipartisan solution to Fiscal Year 2017 (which just ended on June 30th), work out some stuff on the governor’s non-budget issues like a property tax freeze and workers’ compensation reform and launch it all over to the House as a way of putting pressure on Madigan.

But the governor figured that Speaker Madigan would drastically water down anything that emerged from the Senate and he wanted the Senate to come up with a solution for Fiscal Year 2018 as well. It was simply too high of a bar. In the end, the Senate Democrats just weren’t willing to go along with the governor’s non-budget and budget demands.

The Senate Republicans elected Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) to replace Radogno. Brady ran against Rauner in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary, but he and the governor are fairly close. The governor probably won’t have many [expletive deleted] problems from Brady, but he has a new role now, so we’ll see.

Radogno and Cullerton had their fights, but they did their utmost to remain civil. Brady is a very likable fellow, so we’ll see how this new relationship works out.

I had an off the record dinner with Radogno after she announced her resignation. We hugged when it was over. I’m really going to miss her because she is truly one of a kind.

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