Punishing the spouses of politicians

Scott Reeder
Posted 3/18/22

I always feel bad for the spouses.

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Punishing the spouses of politicians


I always feel bad for the spouses.

When politicians get charged with a crime, the political powers that be go after their mates too. 

Early this month, Gov. JB Pritzker booted Shirley Madigan from her position as chair of the Illinois Arts Council. It’s a position that she served well and ably in for 37 years. 

When she took that job, Ronald Reagan was president, J.B. Pritzker was in high school and House Speaker Chris Welch was in the third grade.

In the decades I covered state government, I’ve never heard a bad word about her. Ever.

She has done remarkable work on behalf of the people of Illinois bringing art programs throughout the Land of Lincoln. For example, last month my oldest daughter competed in a poetry recital sponsored by the Arts Council. 

And she has developed partnerships with public television to educate viewers about Illinois artists. The job is voluntary. She has never received a dime for her work but has contributed mightily. 

But this month Pritzker said he wants to take the council in a new direction and fired her. No one believes the governor. He gave her the boot because her husband former Speaker Mike Madigan is in trouble and Pritzker wants to distance himself. 

So, a few hours before Mike Madigan was indicted on corruption charges, Pritzker picked up the phone and called him to let him know his wife was fired. Oh, they dressed it up a bit and let her submit her resignation. But you get the idea.

The implications of the conversation were clear: a powerful man was talking to a once powerful man and letting him know his wife’s fate. She wasn’t a part of the conversation. She was treated as an appendage, not someone contributing in her own right, not even worthy of being spoken to directly when being let go.

It smacks of sexism. 

Now, I’ll be the first to say that the governor has every right to put whoever he wants into that job. And no one owns a job forever. But one has to ask if this is a gracious way to cut someone loose. Her only transgression would appear to be that she is married to the wrong fellow. 

No doubt, some will say she almost certainly wouldn’t have received the position if it wasn’t for her husband. I won’t argue that. But I’ll also point out that anyone who gets elected to high office in Illinois or serves in a prestigious post like heading the Arts Council is there because they have the backing of powerful, influential people. 

A few years ago, I heard similar sentiments expressed against Illinois Chief Justice Anne Burke. 

“Illinois voters should be appalled that Justice Burke has been named chief justice in the wake of her husband being under federal investigation. It’s scandalous that we would have a couple like that, the wife of an indicted alderman sitting as the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court. In Illinois, you just can’t make it up,” former state Rep. Jeanne Ives told the DuPage Policy Journal.

Anne’s husband, Ed Burke is Chicago’s longest-serving alderman. He faces 14 federal corruption charges.

And let me emphasize this: Both Burke and Madigan are merely accused of breaking the law. They have not stood trial or been convicted of a crime. In the United States of America, a person is innocent until proven guilty. 

Regular readers of this column know my strong libertarian sentiments. I’m skeptical of government. I’m not a fan of either Mike Madigan or Ed Burke’s political philosophies. 

That’s OK. In a democracy, we want diverse points of view in the public forum. While I admire the work and intellect of Anne Burke and Shirley Madigan, I haven’t always agreed with their positions, either. But this isn’t a defense or an endorsement of either person’s policy positions. 

It’s merely an observation that in the American legal system relatives of those accused of crimes are not punished simply for their kinship. And the American sense of fair play would seem to command that should be the case for public life as well. 

Even after her husband, former Gov. George Ryan, went to prison, his wife Lura Lynn continued to serve on the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. She was instrumental in helping make the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum a reality.

President Barack Obama sought her out when he spoke in Springfield to honor our sixteenth president.

That was a kindness that spoke well of the man. He gained nothing by talking to the wife of a convicted politician. But that didn’t stop him from according her the dignity and respect she deserved. 

It sets an example of graciousness worthy of emulation. 

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at: sreeder@illinoistimes.com.