Ray Long is either the luckiest man in Illinois journalism or he has an inside source.
His just-released book about former Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan came out only a few weeks after a headline making 22-count federal indictment was filed by the U.S. Justice Department against the 79-year-old career politician.
“I turned it in January 2021,” said Long of his manuscript. “And I was disappointed that it didn’t come out by Thanksgiving. And then, it didn’t come out by Christmas.”
Long paused. The Chicago Tribune investigative reporter and former Springfield bureau chief was sitting at a small table signing books at the doorway to the side room of the Billy Goat Tavern on lower Michigan Avenue in Chicago.Then, with a slight humble smile, he added: “But the delay turned out to be a great thing.”
“Ray’s timing is unbelievable,” said Pat Brady, former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. Brady was one of about 150 journalists and politicos who came to celebrate the release of Long’s book: The House that Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer (University of Illinois Press).
“The pairing of Ray Long and his subject matter of Mike Madigan is wonderful,” said Marj Halperin, a Democratic analyst and communication consultant. “They truly are each icons in their own way.”
The turnout was a tribute to Long, a 25-year veteran of Springfield coverage, who is as well-known to people who are either in or follow state politics. It included some who knew Long when he began, such as retired Tribune reporter Jim Strong and current newsroom colleagues, such as Chris Jones, editorial page editor.
“Ray is intensely focused on his work,” said Terrence James, a Tribune photographer. “And more important, he is a profoundly grounded human being.”
But also many of his colleagues who are also Long’s competitors.
“Ray is the perfect guy to write this book,” agreed Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown. “Ray—like everything else on the Madigan story—has been Johnny-on-the-spot,” adding: “But there are probably two dozen of us (political reporters) kicking ourselves.”
Madigan was part of Ray’s beat for more than 25 years, which is how many years Long has covered the state capital for various news outlets, including the Sun-Times, AP and the Tribune. Through it all, Long has often been called by many who know him a man of integrity and a top reporter.
“I am unafraid to tell someone who beat me on a story that they did a good job and over the years, maybe that’s made a difference,” said Long in response to being accused of being a good person and reporter. “I also treat everybody with respect even when I am writing tough stories. I try to be fair and accurate and I think I am just persistent.”
A quick unscientific poll of Long’s editors who showed up at the Billy Goat back up Long.
“I’ve worked with Ray at two different newspapers, the Sun-Times and Tribune,” said Joyce Winnecke, who was also Long’s editor. “He’s always been one of the hardest working and most decent reporters with really great instincts, illustrated with the timing of this book.”
“There really isn’t another journalists so positioned to write this,” said John Dowling, who covered Springfield for the Associated Press with Long and in another iteration was also Long’s editor at AP. “He’s covered Madigan his whole career from the time he became speaker to his downfall. He has seen it all. And he is someone who was in covering Illinois politics, has also seen the bigger picture.”
Long has written numerous detailed and hard hitting stories about former Speaker Madigan in the past.
Yet, for decades, many thought Madigan was untouchable.
“Madigan and his acolytes always said he never crossed the line but this time he is alleged to have crossed the line in many ways,” said Long.
Madigan’s many titles gave him power over state money, legislation, reapportionment and slating. It won him friends but it also meant even those who opposed him would go out of their way to not anger the Speaker.
“I’m not saying that he was guilty of things before but he has been involved in a number of eyebrow raising scams in the past. And I’m not saying that he was dirty his entire career—we never proved that and he was never charged with anything.”
Then, why was an indictment so long in coming?
“Sometimes the feds don’t really audit the papers,” said Long.
Madigan was a political student of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the first Mayor Daley. The power Madigan amassed in his nearly four decades as Speaker shaped Illinois politics, policies and the state itself as Long outlines in his book:
Loved, revered, hated or feared, Madigan commanded an outsized role. It all played into the Madigan Mystique — which still exists somewhere between real and perceived power. Whether one viewed Madigan as a genius, a jerk or both — and plenty of people populated each camp — he managed consistently to mesmerize his admirers and frustrate his foes. Madigan’s political opponents found themselves beaten down so often by his persistent but subtle force that he became known early on as “The Velvet Hammer.”
A few years ago, the protective walls started to crumble. Madigan’s friend and associate, Michael McClain was indicted in late 2020 along with two former Commonwealth Edison executives. In the indictment, Madigan was not named but he was identified as “Public Official A.” A few months later, Madigan was deposed as House Speaker and in February 2021, he resigned as Democratic Party chair about 50 years after he had entered politics.
On March 2, Madigan was indicted on “racketeering and bribery charges for allegedly using his official position to corruptly solicit and receive personal financial rewards for himself and his associates,” according to the news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. McClain was also indicted, a second time, for carrying out Madigan’s directives. Both Madigan and McClain have pleaded not guilty to the charges and denied any wrong doing.
The indictment frames the nefarious activities as occurring in the last decade. But Long’s book serves as a primer on the Speaker’s full career. It includes details that only a reporter such as Long would have.
“It is so good, it should be required reading,” said NBC5 political reporter Mary Ann Ahern. “It’s just great. It really fills in a lot of the holes on how things happened.” Ahern and Long have known each other since their early days in journalism when both competed against one another as reporters in Peoria.
“He is such a solid fantastic reporter. He’s the real deal,” she said. “Every reporter, young and old, should read this book. It’s a primer for the way the state has operated.”
So, does this mean the book also marks the end of an Illinois political era?
Said Ahern: “Who knows. It may continue. I’m not sure we always learn from our mistakes.”
Susy Schultz is a Chicago-based journalist and nonprofit executive.