Rep. Chris Welch Becomes Illinois’ First Black House Speaker

Chris Welch
Illinois state Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside, at the Illinois Capitol Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. Ted Schurter / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool
Chris Welch
Illinois state Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside, at the Illinois Capitol Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Springfield, Ill. Ted Schurter / The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool

Rep. Chris Welch Becomes Illinois’ First Black House Speaker

State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, the House Democrat who oversaw a stymied misconduct inquiry into House Speaker Michael Madigan, was crowned his successor Wednesday, marking an end to a legendary run of Springfield’s most powerful politician.

Welch becomes the first Black speaker of the Illinois house in state history. He won the speaker’s gavel after a short, but intense, internal campaign once it was clear Madigan would not receive the votes he needed to be re-elected.

“This state will never be able to adequately thank Speaker Madigan for the job he has done,” Welch said in his remarks accepting the title of House Speaker, thanking Madigan even before his own family.

Welch’s ascension marks the end to Madigan’s historic reign, considering he’s been speaker for all but two years since 1983.

“I wish all the best for Speaker-elect Welch as he begins a historic speakership,” Madigan said in a statement. “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.”

The 18-term speaker did not speak at Wednesday’s inauguration, and spent his last full day in power sidelined, having suspended a bid to extend his record-setting tenure after being crippled politically by a federal corruption probe that has tainted a fabled career.

No other state or federal lawmaker in American history has been speaker longer than Madigan.

Picking up much of Madigan’s support, Welch, a Democrat from Hillside who begins his fifth term Wednesday, outmaneuvered three other opponents in a hastily built win that now makes him the first African American to hold the House gavel in Illinois’ 202-year history. There have been two African American Senate presidents in state history.

Welch didn’t secure his win until just before noon Wednesday, less than an hour before the new General Assembly was set to be sworn in.

His ascension had hit a bit of turbulence as old allegations centering on his treatment of women surfaced in the midst of his head-counting.

Opponents circulated a report involving a 2002 domestic battery arrest in which the alleged victim opted against pressing charges. In a dramatic scene that played out on the House floor Tuesday, he gathered a group of female House Democrats to explain his side of the story.

Publicly, Welch only referred to those reports in his speech as “negativity” and “hate” as he explained that he had his wife’s support to be speaker.

“I have reconciled with the individual since that night,” a Welch spokeswoman said in a statement. “In fact, after our dispute we sought out the authorities ourselves. “Their family lives in my district and are proud supporters of my public service and work. However, I must convey my dismay over the lack of decency displayed by the GOP politicians and their urge to use this report against me.”

Welch’s win assured that Madigan wouldn’t get to end his historic legislative career on the terms he might have hoped, driven from power largely by fallout from an ongoing federal corruption probe.

Frequently dubbed Illinois’ most powerful politician, Madigan’s political stock plummeted after ComEd acknowledged last summer that it engaged in a Springfield bribery scheme between 2011 and 2019, which aimed to influence the speaker to advance the utility’s agenda.

While Madigan has not been charged, he was characterized by federal prosecutors as “Public Official A” dozens of times in court filings related to the ComEd investigation, and House Republicans used that as a basis to push for a House inquiry into possible misconduct by the speaker.

Welch headed the panel investigating Madigan last fall and frequently clashed with House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, over the effort to document Madigan’s relationship with the powerful utility company. Welch repeatedly accused Durkin and Republicans of using the election-year hearings for “political gain.”

On Tuesday, Durkin blasted Welch as “an extension of Mike Madigan” for his close ties to the speaker and over his handling of the Madigan inquiry, which resulted in no findings against the speaker.

The minority leader’s confrontational tone continued into his own speech at Wednesday’s inauguration — delivering a jolting speech full of contempt for Madigan instead of what’s traditionally a celebratory call for unity and cooperation between the two parties.

“His legacy leaves broken promises to Illinois taxpayers,” Durkin said, telling Democrats to “listen” and “this is my time to talk” as they began to stir at the direction he was headed in his speech. “A legacy driven by absolute power and control so much that his business model forced the largest public utility in the state to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago.”

Durkin went on to say that he takes Welch at his word that he’s willing to work with the minority party, even if their visions of Illinois politics appeared to be diametrically opposed on Wednesday.

“What we have here through this unique are rare opportunity is the ability to break from the past, to break from that business model,”

Welch was first elected to the Illinois House in 2012, representing the 7th House District, after a stint as president of the Proviso Township High School District 209 board.

As a lawmaker, he’s voted to expand abortion rights, increase the minimum wage and tighten gun-control laws.

In 2013, Welch voted for legislation backed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn that would have curtailed pension benefits for government workers, but the law wound up being invalidated two years later by the Illinois Supreme Court.

He has ventured into the obscure, sponsoring legislation to make cursive mandatory in Illinois schools.

Welch also was part of a legal battle waged by a handful of Democratic lawmakers against former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Welch and his colleagues sued the former governor and former comptroller over their withholding of legislative paychecks during Illinois’ two-year budget impasse, arguing they were using the tactic for political leverage.

And early in the pandemic, Welch clashed with state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, over Bailey’s resistance to wearing a mask on the House floor to safeguard against spreading COVID-19. Welch sponsored a motion that kicked Bailey out of the House for a day.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state politics for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.