How Chris Welch Became Speaker

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When Emanuel “Chris” Welch gaveled in the 102nd General Assembly as the first Black speaker of the House in Illinois history, it marked a historic victory owed largely to the resolve of women lawmakers to move away from the 36-year iron-clad rule of former Speaker Mike Madigan, and the savvy strategy of the tightly unified Illinois House Black Caucus.

“I think I myself got the ball rolling, when I announced for speaker on Oct. 1,” said Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Aurora). “Then two other ladies announced a couple of days before going down to Springfield (Northlake Rep. Kathleen Willis and Chicago Rep. Ann Williams). We were all part of the group of 19 that was not going to be supportive of Madigan in any way.”

Several of Madigan’s top staff members were linked to the sexual harassment scandal which sparked the #MeToo movement in Springfield led by women working in political circles. Madigan was under further pressure from the ComEd scandal, resulting in the giant utility paying a $200 million federal court fine for bribing Madigan’s associates in exchange for favorable legislation.

“There was a record number of women and a number of others, 18 or 19, who said they were not going to vote for him under any circumstances, who said he just could not get their vote,” said Black Caucus chairman Rep. Sonya Harper (D-Chicago). “And so when it came down to it, if he couldn’t flip about 9 of those people, he couldn’t become speaker. And guess what? Those people kept their word. He did not have a path to 60.”

When a straw poll showed Madigan with 51 votes, nine short of the number needed, events moved quickly. Madigan “suspended” his campaign the next day, signaling he saw no way to win.

Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside), a Madigan supporter, didn’t see the end coming for Madigan.

“He woke up Monday morning and came to the personal conclusion that while he probably could go out and get one or two more votes, he didn’t think he could get nine,” said Rep. Zalewski. “And as the day progressed it was clear there wasn’t going to be this moment where he was going to be able to recapture enough votes to win.”

With Madigan out, Welch and downstate Rep. Jay Hoffman jumped in. Williams and Kifowit eventually dropped out.

But it was the strategic decision by the Black Caucus, which has 22 votes, to hang together that gave them key leverage in the process.

“What we said in the Black Caucus is the next Speaker of the House, if not a member of the Black Caucus, it should be a person who gets over the top decisively because of the Black Caucus’ influence,” said Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago), a Black Caucus member.

“Once it was clear that Madigan was blocked, Chris mobilized the Black Caucus to support him,” said UIC Political Science Prof. Dick Simpson. “They could all see the advantages of that. Then it was up to him to get the Latino Caucus, the women’s block and the Madigan supporters that he had worked with over the years.”

Welch received 70 votes, 10 more than he needed to be elected as speaker. Despite the immense support to oust Madigan and see new leadership in the House, several concerning allegations have resurfaced this week that call Welch’s prior conduct into question. State Rep. Kelly Cassidy cites these allegations as her reason for voting "present" on Wednesday.

"I did so because, at the same time that we’re ending years of scandal over allegations of sexual harassment and corruption, we have also just been made aware of troubling allegations from Speaker Welch’s past…It is my fervent wish that these allegations will be vigorously reviewed so that we can move forward as a unified caucus embracing this historic moment.”

What made Chris Welch the choice of the Black Caucus?

“Chris’ history of serving as chair of the Executive Committee, the heaviest committee in Springfield where all the huge legislation come through, and his experience with the special (Madigan) investigatory committee he chaired this year,” said Rep. Buckner. “And it was important to me that we find somebody who could get to 60 votes by putting together a coalition of downstate moderates, suburban women, and the Black and Latino caucuses.”

Welch joined the Illinois House in 2013, representing Maywood and nearby Western suburbs. He previously served as president of Proviso Township Board of Education (District 209). He’s a graduate of Northwestern, holds a law degree from John Marshall, and is a partner at the Ancel Glink law firm.

After decades under Madigan’s tight-fisted rule, lawmakers are looking for more freedom under Welch.

“I think that his personality is collaborative and being new, he knows that we all have to work together,” said Rep. Kifowit. “He’s promised a 10 year term limit on leadership. He’s very accessible. He’s always been open and ready to listen to new ideas. We can contact him. By email. By cellphone!”

That, in contrast to Madigan who was famous for not using a cellphone.

Legislators also chafed at Madigan’s tight control on legislative matters. Until recently, lawmakers had to choose three bills to prioritize and no more. On the political side, candidates in swing districts were counseled to shy away from progressive stances.

“They’ve been told in the past under Madigan, being in a district that can flip-flop, they can’t or shouldn’t vote on certain things.  There were a lot of folks who took umbrage with that. I think Chris wants to give people a little more independence, a little more autonomy, “said Rep. Buckner.

Democrats even foresee, and welcome, a new spirit of bipartisanship.

“Speaker Madigan just presented the rules and we’d vote on them without discussion from anybody,” said Rep. Harper. “But Speaker Welch said in a spirit of collaboration, he would wait until he gets input from members of both parties on the rules before we vote on them. It’s a new day when it comes to having a little bit more input on matters that used to be only decided by leadership or a small group of people.”

There’s widespread speculation that after losing the powerful speaker’s chair, Madigan isn’t long for the legislature.

“I don’t have any intel on this but my instinct is I just can’t see a situation where he would stick around as a rank and file member. I just don’t,” said Rep. Buckner.

However, Madigan is still chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party and controls millions in campaign funds. Rep. Zalewski doesn’t see him holding on to that role, either, or the role of chief architect of the 2021 remap.

“I think as the year progresses you’ll see the speaker address his future in a number of ways. The chairmanship of the party will be part of that, the leadership of the party’s political arm will be part of that. This isn’t going to be hard to figure out. He’s going to transition out. I think you’ll see him retire to a private life and I wish him the best on that. And I think Chris will be the quarterback on the remap,” said Zalewski.

With Madigan severely weakened, some observers believe Gov. J. B. Pritzker automatically becomes the state’s most powerful Democrat.

“J.B. has enough personal wealth and big money connections to help any legislator he wants to get elected,” said Simpson. “And I expect the governor to use his influence to move bills.”

Others aren’t so sure.

“The governor has certainly shown a tremendous amount of leadership both politically and governmentally,” said Zalewski. “I think we’re all sort of in this fog of war about the most powerful Democrat, the most powerful politician. It’s been such an earthquake. It’s going to take some time to sort through this.”

If anyone has come out a winner—in addition to Chris Welch—it’s the Women’s Caucus and the Black Caucus.

“We have shown we can use our collective voice to effect change,” said Rep. Kifowit.

“To have a member of our caucus today gavel in the House of Representatives in the same body that Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, started his political career in 1834, it’s monumental,” said Rep. Buckner. “It’s a huge win.”

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January 19, 2021 at 09:50AM

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