CHICAGO — State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch became the first Black speaker of the Illinois House Wednesday, as Democrats rejected another term for scandal-plagued Michael Madigan, ending the Southwest Side Democrat’s decadeslong reign as the undisputed power behind Illinois politics.
Welch, of west suburban Hillside, got 70 votes from the 118-member chamber, where Democrats hold 73 seats, as a new General Assembly was sworn into office. His job is now to chart a new future for the chamber’s Democrats after nearly four decades of Madigan’s almost single-handed control of both the party and state agendas.
Republicans backed Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who will remain House GOP leader and, with Madigan’s loss of the speaker’s job, becomes the longest serving of the General Assembly’s four partisan legislative leaders.
With the formal vote for speaker on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center, the state enters a new political age with a diverse Democratic caucus that will try to shed the negative baggage that it has carried in recent years in backing Madigan’s leadership.
State Rep. Maurice West of Rockford, a member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus who had opposed Madigan’s reelection, noted the “historic moment” as he nominated Welch to be the state’s first Black speaker.
Welch, he said, committed to “power moves to restore the trust of the people of Illinois.” Those moves included “immediate” ethics reform, term limits on the speakership, selecting a diversified leadership team and giving more independence to House committees in dealing with legislation.
“Chris Welch is the leader for such a time as this. Yes, we are walking in uncharted territories with COVID-19 still running rampant through our communities, a major budget crisis, remap, all while immediately following … the huge footsteps and monumental legacy of Speaker Madigan. But I firmly believe that Welch did not choose this moment. This moment chose Welch,” West said.
In his acceptance speech, Welch called for political and racial unity at a time of sharp divisions amid the personal and economic toll of COVID-19.
“Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats or Republicans because I want to talk about us being united. We’re going to work together to move this state forward,” he said, while saying disrespect of others will not be tolerated on the House floor.
“In the last year we’ve seen the tragedy of racial tensions reach a boiling point after innocent men and women had been murdered in the streets. But our politics force many people to see the issue as black and white as opposed to human being to human being. Why do we do that? Why?” he asked.
“While we might not always agree with each other, why do our politics have to be about negativity and destruction? I hope we can open a new chapter in this great state where we can work together to help families who have lost jobs, access to employment, heck, access to the employment office and healthcare.”
Welch credited Madigan for demonstrating “true leadership” during his tenure as speaker.
“While our state has many problems, our schools are better, more children have access to healthcare and our working class families can more easily live the American dream thanks to the strong leadership of Speaker Madigan,” he said. This state will never be able to adequately thank Speaker Madigan for the job he has done.”
But Durkin, who has served as House GOP leader since 2013, issued a sharp attack on Madigan in his speech from the floor, accusing the longtime speaker of failing to keep his promises to Illinois residents while engaging in a “business model” of “absolute power and control” that is currently part of a federal investigation.
“The legacy is also one which failed its citizens with unbalanced budgets, broken pension systems, tax increase after tax increase with nothing to show for it. The saying goes if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Durkin said. “While his reign as speaker is all but over, his decades of power will never be erased.”
Welch’s election followed several days of conferences and closed-door ballots during which Democrats could not come to a consensus on a replacement for Madigan. Welch eventually gained the minimum 60 votes he needed after making a final agreement Wednesday morning with his only remaining challenger, state Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea in southwestern Illinois. Hoffman, who served in leadership under Madigan, said he will continue to hold such a post under Welch.
Madigan, 78, has been speaker for all but two of the last 38 years, giving up the gavel for two years in the mid-1990s when Republicans briefly held control of the chamber. He was first seated in the House 50 years ago this month.
In a statement, Madigan thanked voters in his Chicago legislative district and House Democrats past and present, saying it was “the honor of a lifetime to help bring people of different experiences and backgrounds together to serve our state.”
“It is time for new leadership in the House. I wish all the best for Speaker-elect Welch as he begins a historic speakership. It is my sincere hope today that the caucus I leave to him, and to all who will serve alongside him, is stronger than when I began.
“And as I look at the large and diverse Democratic majority we have built — full of young leaders ready to continue moving our state forward, strong women and people of color, and members representing all parts of our state — I am confident Illinois remains in good hands,” he said.
Madigan was sworn in with the rest of the 102nd General Assembly Wednesday, but it was unclear if he would continue to serve as a regular member of the House. Some of his supportive colleagues had their doubts. It also was not known if he would continue as state Democratic chairman, a post he has held since 1998.
Welch entered the House eight years ago, and his visibility has grown each year since. Most recently, he served as chairman of the powerful House Executive Committee — the panel which Madigan tightly controlled to oversee critical and controversial legislation.
A Madigan ally, Welch also chaired a special House investigating committee formed to look into Madigan’s actions after he was implicated in July in a federal bribery scandal involving Commonwealth Edison. The utility agreed to pay a $200 million fine and cooperate with authorities after acknowledging it had engaged in a scheme to win Madigan’s favor by offering jobs and contracts to his top allies.
Madigan has not been charged and has said he had no knowledge of the scheme. His top confidant, former lawmaker and lobbyist Michael McClain, and three others were recently indicted in the investigation. They all have pled not guilty.
Welch’s chairmanship of the panel ended abruptly with no findings — a point Republicans have raised in contending that the new speaker will continue to do Madigan’s bidding. Members of the Black Caucus said they resented such criticism.
Welch is the first Black to serve as speaker of the House. Illinois has had two African Americans serve as state Senate president ― Cecil Partee in 1975 and Emil Jones Jr. in 2003.
Welch’s entry as one of the “Four Tops,” the group of partisan leaders of the House and Senate, comes with some controversy.
A 2002 police report indicates that Hillside officers were called to Welch’s home and an ex-girlfriend told them that Welch slammed her head into a kitchen countertop numerous times after she called him “a loser.” The woman did not press charges after talking it over with a relative of Welch’s, the report states.
Welch also faced a 2010 federal lawsuit for sexual harassment and retaliation in which a different woman alleged she lost her job at Proviso Township High School District High School because she broke up with him while he was president of the school board. Records show settlement talks had started in the wrongful termination case when a motion was filed to dismiss the matter.
Welch referred questions to a spokesperson, who on Tuesday issued a statement.
“This verbal argument occurred nearly two decades ago,” Welch said of the 2002 police report. “I will be honest that I have reconciled with the individual since that night.”
Welch sought to blame Republicans for the questions about his past. “At no other occasion have these events been brought up and I firmly believe my Republican colleagues are threatened by the potential growth of my profile,” he wrote.
Welch’s candidacy for speaker emerged in concert with Madigan’s decision to suspend his campaign for reelection, but not to withdraw from the race, after a closed-door caucus Sunday found him nine votes shy of the needed votes for reelection.
Madigan found his vaunted decadeslong power initially weakened when his top governmental and political aides were caught up in a sexual harassment scandal two years ago.
Being implicated in the ComEd bribery scandal added to years of attacks that Republicans had heaped on Madigan, particularly in expensive advertising paid by wealthy one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who was defeated by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2018.
Pritzker blamed the November loss of his top agenda item, a graduated-rate income tax, on the negative campaign waged by opponents warning of distrust of Springfield, with Madigan a prime example. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield blamed Madigan for the loss of a central Illinois congressional seat. And a Democratic state Supreme Court justice also lost retention after opponents linked him to Madigan.
In the meantime, rank-and-file Democrats and Democratic legislative candidates said that before they were able to offer up their agenda, voters demanded to know how they would vote on Madigan’s speakership.
In the end, for Democrats, Madigan had become more than a distraction and was a detriment.
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