Monday marks the end of an era in Illinois consumer protection, as the state’s longest-serving attorney general will step aside.
After 16 years in office, Attorney General Lisa Madigan is getting ready for her next chapter – and taking a look back at all she’s tackled – in an exclusive interview with NBC 5 Responds, like you’ve never seen her before.
Madigan is Illinois‘ first female attorney general – an historic role she says wasn’t weighing on her mind when she took office.
“For me, what I’ve always enjoyed most is diving in, finding out what the problems are, figuring out the solutions and getting the work done,” Madigan said.
Getting to work meant taking on many of the expected issues, but it also meant navigating a new world, as digital devices changed everything for consumers.
“The use of technology was really adapted, you know, maybe first and best by scam artists,” Madigan said. “We’ve had to adapt by making sure we bring on people who can investigate.”
As the office tackled that task, a more immediate crisis cropped up: the collapse of the housing market, which hit Chicago hard and launched Madigan into a national role as the first Illinois attorney general to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 25 years.
“I was spending the vast majority of my time in Washington, D.C., negotiating the mortgage foreclosure settlement, that $25 billion dollar deal,” she recalled. “I was at the Department of Justice, you know, week in and week out.”
That work ultimately snared a bevy of bad actors – and left Madigan with personal stories she may never shake.
“People would come in with shopping bags of their mortgage documents and have us try to help sort through what had happened,” Madigan said. “That’s always, I think, what strikes me the most about consumer problems, is the fact that, you know, there are people out there who are so, you know, willing to say anything to make money that they don’t care what happens to you, they don’t care what happens to your family, they don’t care if you lose your house, they care about nothing but making that money.”
Madigan says it is the people she served who made her job worthwhile, heading an office she realized many still don’t understand.
“I’ve learned this – even lawyers don’t understand what the state attorney general does,” she said.
“But the way I try to describe it is, look, while I am the lawyer for the state, and therefore defending the state of Illinois when it’s sued, what most people know about the office is the affirmative work that we do, so the work that we’re doing for people. So when we’re actually investigating and suing companies that have, you know, defrauded somebody, or done something wrong, and that’s really the consumer work that people know us for,” she continued.
Its scope is both enormous and complicated – though some boil it down as the only elected official who actually makes people happy.
“Not all the time,” Madigan said with a laugh. “I would say like 98 percent of the time.”
Madigan’s most impactful case, in her eyes? She couldn’t decide.
“The national mortgage settlement,” she said, adding, “but I also have to say that bringing the lawsuits against Countrywide and Wells Fargo for discriminatory lending.”
The one that kept her up most at night?
“So-called debtors prisons,” Madigan responded. “Where people are using, you know, they’re using the court process ultimately to throw people into prison or jail simply because they don’t have the resources to pay a debt.”
As for what she will miss least – it’s the creatures in her office.
“I’m not gonna miss the cockroaches at the Thompson Center,” she exclaimed. “That is the worst! They’re big, they’re big.”
But what she will miss is both the people and the work itself.
“I mean the greatest thing about my job is that when somebody comes to the office, or when I see something on TV, and I know we can help, I’m right there,” she said. “I mean I bring the mail I get from home and say look, I can tell this is a scam! Find out.”
As for what advice she’s given her successor, Attorney General-elect Kwame Raoul, she said it was simple.
“Pay attention to the details. Sweat the small stuff. Because you have to. There’s a lot going on, the office does not run by itself, you’ve gotta come into work and you’ve gotta do the job. You can make an extraordinary difference, it’s incredibly satisfying, but sweat the small stuff.”
Into the office at age 36 and out at 52, Madigan said her recipe for success came from another prominent Illinois politician.
“You don’t have to worry about the politics if you just do your job and you do it well,” she said. “People will support you even if they disagree with you if they know you’re doing the right thing, or you’re trying to do the right thing.”
“And you know where I got that? I got that from watching Paul Simon,” she continued.
“I had the opportunity to work with him, and he was just such an extraordinary public servant that I saw, you know people disagreed with him, when he was, you know, from Southern Illinois talking about the injustice of the death penalty. And nonetheless they supported him, because they understood why he was saying that, they knew he believed in that, and he was always at the forefront of issues.”
The easiest question of all might be the hardest thing for this attorney general to put behind – is this the best job she thinks she’ll ever have?
“Oh there’s a really good chance,” she quickly answered. “And certainly as a lawyer, it’s difficult to imagine a better job. And I can tell you among my AG colleagues around the country, even the folks that go onto the U.S. Senate and other governors, they all say the best job I ever had was serving as attorney general.”