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Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Will you support Mike Madigan as Speaker of the House?

I asked that question to a Democrat who knocked on my door several years ago seeking votes, and the answer was less than inspiring. They wouldn’t say yes, because they knew I wanted to hear no. But neither would they say no — because they knew the ultimate answer was yes.

For years Democrats seeking House seats have done so after already entrenching Madigan’s power or while acknowledging doing so would be the first task they’d face in office. Republican opponents have consistently guaranteed they’d never back Madigan.

In purple districts this choice alone has been responsible for blue-to-red flips, though none of the math has toppled Madigan. He’s been speaker since 1983, save for 1995 and 1996, which means he’s on his seventh governor.

But as of this week, voters can ask stumping Democrats a more pointed question: Will you vote for Stephanie Kifowit to be Speaker?

Rep. Kifowit, D-Oswego, has been in the House since 2013. On Thursday she announced she’d challenge Madigan for one of the most powerful legislative leadership posts in the country. Not content to simply call for Madigan’s resignation as Speaker — which she did in July following news of his implication in a ComEd bribery scheme — the Marine Corps veteran singlehandedly changed electoral dynamics in a typically static state.

The showdown isn’t hypothetical. Both lawmakers are unopposed in November, and House Democrats need to win just six of 58 contested races to retain a majority. Democrats technically could claim as many as 103 of 118 House seats, but regardless of the final tally it’s clear the survivors will have to make a choice about the direction of the party.

There are plenty of other factors at play, namely Madigan’s role as head of the state party organization and therefore its considerable campaign resources. There’s also the matter of changing the players versus the game itself, as illustrated by Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, a member of the House committee investigating Madigan:

“Unless and until I see from the Democrats a full commitment as well that they are going to actually revise the rules so that we can truly have bipartisan legislation come forward,” Mazzochi said at a Thursday conference, “I have concerns about that because what I don’t want to do is change the figurehead and then not change the underlying political structure.”

Kifowit comes ready.

“Members will no longer be marginalized, intimidated, bullied, coerced, subject to microaggressions, gaslighted, you name it,” she said. “Representatives should not be subject to that, and they won’t be when I am speaker.”

These are the stakes. Voters, when candidates come knocking, don’t let them leave without a real commitment.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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