By Bob Skolnik
Reform is coming to the Illinois General Assembly. That was the message that state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) delivered Nov. 7 to an audience of about 25 people who gathered in a cramped downstairs conference room at the Brookfield Public Library for a forum with Zalewski sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the LaGrange Area.
Zalewski said that the recent rash of federal raids on area politicians and the indictments of two state legislators likely will prompt reform. Luis Arroyo, a Chicago Democrat, resigned from the stat's House of Representatives on Nov. 1 after being charged with trying to bribe a state senator to sponsor legislation to allow sweepstakes gambling, a move that would benefit a lobbying client of Arroyo.
In September, federal agents executed search warrants on the village halls of Lyons and McCook and searched the offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval.
Sandoval, McCook mayor and Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski, and Lyons Village President Christopher Getty have not been charged with any crimes.
Last summer, federal agents also searched the home of Zalewski's own father, also named Michael Zalewski, a former longtime Chicago alderman who resigned as alderman in 2018 more than a year before his home was searched.
Published reports say federal authorities are apparently looking into the pattern of ComEd and its parent company, Exelon, hiring as lobbyists associates and allies of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. The senior Zalewski also did lobbying.
"It's hitting close to home," Zalewski said of the federal investigations. "I will tell you that I think we're going to have a reckoning in the next year or two about what the future of the state looks like in terms of governance."
Zalewski said that it is possible that in the future state legislators could be banned from working at other jobs as some of them do now and be required to be full-time legislators. He said such a move would have pros and cons.
"You'll lose some talent that way," Zalewski said. "You run the risk of having a lack of the diversity of insight."
Zalewski said some legislators might quit if they couldn't work at other jobs or practice their professions.
Zalewski, a lawyer who works for the large law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister when he is not in Springfield, said forcing legislators to give up outside work would force him and others to think about whether they wanted to continue serving in the legislature.
He also said that such a change to a full-time legislature would probably lead to higher salaries for state legislators.
"You better be ready for a broad-based conversation about salary," Zalewski said, adding that he wasn't complaining about his salary.
Illinois state legislators are paid an annual salary of $69,464. If they are committee chairmen, as Zalewski is, they receive an additional payment of $10,574.
But stronger disclosure requirements about the sources of outside income and outside interests are probably coming, although Zalewski said it might not go as far as requiring legislators to release their income tax returns.
"I'm a little nervous about showing everybody my taxes," Zalewski said. "I do think people want more transparency, so I think we can figure that out."
A complete ban on state legislators lobbying local governments, as proposed by Republicans in the General Assembly, would make it more difficult to work as a lawyer. Zalewski said that much work done by lawyers, such a representing clients seeking zoning variations or changes, can be considered lobbying.
Zalewski acknowledged that Madigan has a poor public image, but said that the speaker has strong support among House Democrats. He said that, in private, Madigan is not the ruthless dictator that he is often made out to be and that he wished Madigan made more of an effort to improve his public image.
"He listens, he hears you out, he doesn't always agree. If the answer is no, the answer is no, but most times the answer is yes, and people don't sort of realize that," Zalewski said.
Zalewski said he believes Madigan can probably remain speaker as long as he wants because of his strong support among Democrats, adding they think of themselves as a family.
"As long as we're going to be a family it's up to him to decide when he's going to depart," Zalewski said.