Column: Welch’s past should’ve prompted Illinois Democrats to slow down election of new speaker

I’m certainly hoping that newly elected Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch has the leadership skills, the wisdom, the guts and the character to help yank the state back from the economic abyss and promote legislation that will improve our quality of life.

It would give me confidence to think that the Democratic House majority in Springfield carefully considered that question and put his qualifications and background to a thorough test before elevating him Wednesday.

Disappointingly, though, Welch went from one name on the list of potential successors to veteran Speaker Michael Madigan to being the holder of the gavel in less than two dizzying days. Those weighing his candidacy against others’ didn’t have the time or, in some cases, the inclination to dig into troubling allegations of past misconduct that began making headlines early in the week and arguably make Welch the wrong person for the job today.

Specifically, as the Tribune’s Ray Long and Megan Crepeau reported, “A 2002 police report indicates that officers in west suburban Hillside were called to Welch’s home, where 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 words “after talking it over with a relative of Welch’s” jump out at me. Whenever I hear that a woman who alleges she’s a victim of domestic violence has been persuaded not to press charges, I want to ask what form did that persuasion take? Does the retraction mitigate the alleged offense or aggravate it by layering emotional abuse onto the physical attack?

In a statement, Welch described the altercation as a “verbal argument” and added, “In fact, after our dispute we sought out the authorities ourselves.”

Really? He and the woman in question had a vigorous verbal dispute and then jointly sought out the authorities?

Who does that? Who has ever done that?

Yes, officer, we would like to report a zesty debate …

Slamming someone’s head into a kitchen countertop numerous times in response to an insult is a fairly serious assault, if Welch did that. And if he’s lying today when he says he didn’t, that freshens and compounds the offense.

An investigatory hearing would have been in order — one with sworn testimony and documentary evidence — before Welch’s legislative colleagues voted him into one of the most powerful positions in Illinois government.

This — again from Long and Crepeau’s story — raises still more questions:

“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 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. In addition, the woman won a short-lived restraining order against Welch.”

The story quoted Welch: “People mature, they look back and would do things differently, handle situations differently.”

Yes, but as a commenter at the Capitol Fax blog noted, in September 2018, a considerably less forgiving Welch tweeted that Republicans should “do the right thing and withdraw (Brett) Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court” over allegations that he’d groped a young woman when he was in high school more than 35 years earlier. The testimony of Kavanaugh’s accuser was “credible and riveting!!!” Welch wrote.

For a state party that has struggled with several #MeToo scandals in recent years to expeditiously promote to the speaker’s chair a man carrying this kind of baggage is stunningly tone-deaf if not downright hypocritical. Many of those who voted for Welch — accused, remember, of slamming a woman’s head on the kitchen counter numerous times — have in the past barely been able to contain their indignation over the behavior of politically prominent men accused of sexual harassment.

And given that Madigan is under federal scrutiny in the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal and has dreadfully low approval numbers, hastily replacing him with one of his top legislative lieutenants wasn’t a good look.

If Welch truly is the best person for the job, he would have withstood more than the cursory scrutiny given his candidacy.

Madigan deserves a great deal of the blame. He didn’t recognize that his time was up, that opposition to his reelection was immovable and that his caucus needed time to thoroughly vet those who sought to take his place. Nevertheless he persisted. He didn’t suspend his candidacy until Monday, just two days before the voting would begin.

Like I say, I hope Speaker Welch proves more than equal to the daunting job ahead. But let’s not pretend that the clouds hanging over him have lifted just because most in his party seem to have ignored them.

Note that above I did not write “Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch,” as many in the media have been doing. The Tribune’s style is to follow the way notable people identify themselves, and Welch uses his full name on his website and Twitter account. But, as his district office confirmed, he goes by Chris, a short form of Christopher, his middle name, so let’s all agree now to refer to him that way.

After all, we don’t write “John ‘Calvin’ Coolidge,” “James ‘Paul’ McCartney,” “Henry ‘Ross’ Perot” or “Hannah ‘Dakota’ Fanning.” These and many other famous people are known by their middle names, and it’s cumbersome and unnecessary to lend prominence to their given names while putting their preferred names in the minimizing embrace of quote marks.

Twitter has been a particularly lively platform lately even without the contributions of President Donald Trump and some of his more radical supporters. So I posted two separate Tweet of the Week polls for readers, one with a political theme and one with an apolitical theme.

The winner in the political division was “We spend $750 billion annually on defense, and the center of American government fell in two hours to the Duck Dynasty and a guy in a Chewbacca bikini,” by @YousefMunayyer.

The winner in the apolitical division was “My son asked me where poo came from. I was a little uncomfortable but gave him an honest answer. He looked perplexed and stared at me for a minute then asked, ‘… and Tigger???’” by @mariana057.

Get the week’s best columns, reports, tips, referrals and tirades from columnist Eric Zorn in the Change of Subject newsletter. Sign up here.

Eric Zorn

Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune with a liberal/progressive bent who specializes in local news and politics. He’s married with three adult children, lives on the Northwest Side of Chicago and is a regular panelist on "The Mincing Rascals," an award-winning news-talk podcast. He’s also a pretty good square-dance fiddler.

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January 15, 2021 at 09:26PM

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