Illinois’ top House Democrat Tuesday predicted passage of an anti-crime package aimed at confronting alarming rises in carjackings and organized retail thefts and possibly disarming Republicans of a potent election-year talking point.
In a wide-ranging interview with WBEZ, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch also declined to pick winners or losers in the latest dispute between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union that idled Chicago public school classrooms for five days.
And the first-year House speaker said Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker is poised for a strong re-election run this fall but said the array of potential GOP rivals “scare” him because they’re “very extreme.”
On the crime issue, the Hillside Democrat didn’t divulge details of what would be in the measure but said his party intends to push back against GOP portrayals that Democrats have been soft on crime.
“We’re early in the session, but I anticipate before we leave, you’re going to see some action on an anti-crime package,” Welch said.
“One of the messages that we’re going to send out loud and clear this session is that we believe that if you do the crime, you should do the time,” he said. “We believe that police should be properly funded and trained and educated. But it’s going to take us all working together to make sure that we bring this violence down.”
Chicago police data show that carjackings rose by 23% in 2021 over the previous year and are up by nearly 300% since 2019. The crime wave has spared few parts of the city.
And it even has spread into suburban communities, including west-suburban Broadview, where Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, and her husband were forced to surrender their car at gunpoint in late December.
While Welch didn’t signal an openness to longer prison sentences for those convicted, he did show possible interest in revisiting a provision in a 2015 state law that spared teens 17 and under from being tried as adults if they commit armed carjackings. Both Welch and Lightford voted in support of that provision.
“If there’s a policy on the books that’s not working that I’ve supported, that other members have supported, and the data suggests we need to do something different, then we need to take a look at that,” he said.
Data on the number of minors involved in more than 1,700 carjackings logged by Chicago police in 2021 was not immediately available from the department Tuesday afternoon, but a police spokesman said he believed more than half of cases met that criterion. Nationally, juveniles are playing a role in the huge spike in carjackings.
Another brazen crime that has been striking North Michigan Avenue and suburban shopping malls are groups of intruders entering stores and grabbing up expensive items en masse and leaving.
Welch said he has been in contact with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association about how to confront the rising prevalence of organized retail theft, but neither he nor the organization would divulge specifics of possible legislation.
Republicans have attacked Democrats over their support of a statewide end to cash bail next year, which the GOP says has enabled potentially violent defendants to return to the streets to commit additional crimes. Last January, lawmakers voted to eliminate cash bail as part of a broader criminal-justice package Pritzker signed last February. Illinois was the first state in the nation to eliminate the practice.
Criminal justice reform advocates fought for that change as a way to enable low-income defendants the same ability to avoid pre-trial jail time as wealthier defendants who could afford bail. They argued existing law disportionately targeted people of color.
Welch said he is not open to delaying an end to cash bail as part of any anti-crime initiatives this spring.
“I don’t know how we take a look at something that hasn’t even gone into effect yet,” Welch said. “There’s no data on that at all other than fear-mongering by folks on the other side of the aisle. That law doesn’t take effect till 2023 so it clearly hasn’t had any impact on the crime that has taken place last year or the crime that is taking place in the first few days of this year.”
Republicans have condemned Pritzker and other Democrats for their stance on criminal justice issues, and Welch’s Republican counterpart in the House dished out more criticism when told details about the speaker’s statements Tuesday.
“How many shootings, carjackings and smash-and-grab robberies do Democrats need to see before they stand up for the law-abiding citizens of Illinois?” said House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
Welch disputed the idea Democrats can be fairly characterized as being soft on crime.
“I think Republicans have to answer for their votes, as well,” he said, citing previous GOP votes against violence prevention, mental health and housing-assistance programs.
On other issues, the House speaker weighed in on the 2022 gubernatorial campaign, which he believes — perhaps predictably — favors Pritzker.
“The Republican candidates all scare me. But I tell you Gov. Pritzker has done a heck of a job his first year. He came out the box and did a remarkable job and then got hit by a global pandemic. which I think he’s handled extremely well. I’m thankful that we have Gov. Pritzker as our governor during this time,” Welch said.
Pressed on what scared him specifically about the GOP field, Welch focused broadly on stances that evoked memories of Pritzker’s vanquished, one-term predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner.
“Many of them are extreme. We saw what extremism did to Illinois in the Bruce Rauner era. It led to 736 days of a budget impasse. You can’t get anything done when you’re governing from extremes,” he said.
And on the issue that gripped all of Chicago and became a recurring national headline, Welch expressed relief that a standoff between the city’s teachers and Chicago Public Schools ended late Monday after classes had to be canceled for five days.
Welch said he did not involve himself in the dispute and, on Tuesday, declined to pick political winners or losers in the uneasy truce between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot – a truce that did little to ease longrunning bitter relations between both sides.
“I don’t want to get in the middle of a battle with the CTU and the mayor. I think that the mayor has a tough job. I think the union leadership has a tough job managing its members,” Welch said. “Everyone has a job to do, and I’m glad they got it done.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.