Welch succeeds friend of Labor Michael Madigan, becomes Illinois’s first Black speaker of the House

‘It’s time to get to work’

Illinois Correspondent

ILLINOIS STATE REP. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-Hillside) takes the oath of office to become speaker of the House for the 102nd General Assembly for the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. – Justin L. Fowler / State Journal-Register photo

Springfield, IL – A long era of Labor and political cooperation came to a close last week with the agreement of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to stand aside after one of his allies, Rep. Chris Welch, secured the majority of votes needed for election to the speaker position, one of the key posts in Illinois government.

A long-time Labor ally, Madigan, 78, held the post for almost 40 years, but was unable to secure the majority of votes needed to hold onto the seat after 17 House members said they would not vote for him. Welch, 49, the first black Speaker of the House, has served in the House since 2013 and has been on Madigan’s leadership team. He represents a district including the Chicago suburb of Hillsdale.

Totsie Bailey, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council, said Madigan will be long remembered as a champion of the Labor Movement.

“I always thought that he was a great leader, and I hate to see him go,” Bailey said. “He was just a strong supporter of Labor.”

Madigan was implicated but not charged in a federal bribery scheme in July. He battled to keep his post, but didn’t seem too broken up by the outcome.

“As I prepare to pass the Speaker’s gavel to a new generation of Democratic leadership, I want to thank the people of my district and the members of the House Democratic Caucus for the faith and trust they have placed in me over the years,” he said. “I want to thank my staff for their hard work on behalf of every member of this caucus. It has been 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.”

The beginning of the end for Madigan’s long tenure as speaker began last summer when Commonwealth Edison admitted offering jobs and contracts to Madigan allies in exchange for favorable legislation, following a federal investigation. Madigan has steadfastly denied any involvement in the scheme, but the taint of the investigation led to the 17 House members voting against him for another term as speaker. He needed 60 votes to hold onto the post, but could muster only 51. On Jan. 11, Madigan officially withdrew, and Welch stepped in as a candidate, quickly drawing widespread support.

The Politico website said the last challenger to Welch was Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea), and that the two met shortly before the vote was taken to elect Welch.

Both Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Sen. Dick Durbin, among other Democrats, had opposed Madigan continuing as speaker, citing damage to the party’s support among voters following the Commonwealth Edison issue going public.

Welch recently blocked a Republican effort to use a House investigative committee to look into the Commonwealth Edison case, and he began his acceptance speech with a salute to Madigan. “The state will never be able to adequately thank Speaker Madigan for the job he has done,” he said.

The House is now made up of 72 Democrats and 45 Republicans. 

Welch struck a bipartisan note in accepting the post. “Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “I want to talk about us as being united. We are going to work together to be united.”

He added, “People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do.”

Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) gave an approving assessment of what she expects from Welch as speaker and on Labor issues.

“I’m confident that Speaker Welch will continue to support working families, collective bargaining, prevailing wage and all the other tenets of the Democratic Party that I hold dear,” she said. “I congratulate Speaker Welch on his historic election.”

Welch is taking the helm at a tough time, with the state facing a $4 billion budget deficit while it battles COVID-19 and redistricting following the 2020 Census, expected to cost the state a Congressional seat.

Welch said he wants to create a 10-year term limit on the speaker’s job and said he would meet with legislators to consider proposed rules changes. He is the 70th speaker of the Illinois House.

“I do plan to have the Legislature very involved in the process,” Welch said. “This year, we’re working through COVID protocols. We’ll use the [Bank of Springfield] Center if we have to but we’re looking at a safe return to the capitol so that we can be engaged in the governing process in 2021,” he said in interviews.

“I believe that the work that I have done in the legislature has demonstrated who I am as a person. It demonstrates what people think of me, because this happened pretty fast, and many of my colleagues are the ones who encouraged me to do this. I think that’s because they know me, they’ve worked with me and I think there’s a smear campaign led by the Republican Party, and some in our party, to try to prevent this moment in history from happening. Many great moments in history, you have to go through things, and I don’t see this as any different.

“I think it’s important to focus on the fact that we have made history here in the state with a new speaker for the first time in almost 40 years,” Welch said. “We are going to govern in a new direction, and it’s not going to be the same. I’m looking forward to being able to show that we’re going to bring some new and exciting things to this position.”


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