House Speaker Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch’s challenge is to fill Madigan’s shoes but not get tripped up by his failings

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Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch inherited a whole host of problems when Mike Madigan handed over the gavel he had wielded for nearly four decades.

But beyond the challenges facing all Illinois leaders — including a gaping budget hole and an unrelenting pandemic — Welch faces the problem of Madigan himself.

The Hillside Democrat must both escape Madigan’s shadow and set the stage to consolidate his own power while sharing it in ways that Madigan never did.

In his first full week on the job, Welch appointed a leadership team that includes six legislators he’ll lean on to rally support for legislation from the various caucuses, a sign that the new speaker could be different from his predecessor, who maintained an iron grip on power.

But getting his own house in order, namely drafting rules for the House, will be the next “major challenge,” a former top lieutenant on Madigan’s team told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“You have to have rules in place before you can begin a serious effort at conducting regular ordinary business of the house,” said Barbara Flynn Currie, a retired state representative who was the first woman to serve as House majority leader. “I actually think getting the House organized and doing the rules and making the appointments, that’s a major challenge. Chris is very smart, and there are lots of good people around him … but that’s the first hurdle he faces.”



House Speaker Michael Madigan, with House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, at a committee hearing in 2017 on a sexual harassment bill.


House Speaker Michael Madigan, with House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, at a committee hearing in 2017 on a sexual harassment bill.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Electing committee chairs — and electing members of leadership — instead of letting the speaker select them unilaterally are some of the issues that lawmakers have raised over the years, Currie said.

A few of the assistant majority leaders on Welch’s leadership team were elected by members of the chamber’s various caucuses, the new speaker told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Democratic Caucus held its first meeting Friday to begin discussions on the chamber’s rules, which previously concentrated power under Madigan.

Welch is a Madigan loyalist, but Currie doesn’t expect Madigan to be the “speaker behind the curtain,” brushing aside concerns the Southwest Side Democrat will still be calling the shots.

“This is not the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” she said.

But state Rep. Kathleen Willis, who sought the speaker’s post herself, said she thinks it’ll be important for Welch to “show that he’s independent of Mr. Madigan.”

A former chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Willis said Welch didn’t give her a reason for not picking her to continue in that role. Welch opted to give that top post to state Rep. Carol Ammons of Urbana.



State Rep. Kathleen Willis, left, in 2018; House Speaker Michael Madigan, right, in 2015. 


State Rep. Kathleen Willis, left, in 2018; House Speaker Michael Madigan, right, in 2015.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia, Rich Hein/Sun-Times file.

Welch is keeping Democratic Reps. Natalie Manley of Joliet and Elizabeth Hernandez of Cicero as assistant majority leaders and elevating Robyn Gabel of Evanston to the post.

But Willis expressed concern about a shortage of representatives from the suburbs on Welch’s team. Still, the Addison legislator said she would be supportive “until they show me that there’s a reason to not be supportive.”

She doesn’t expect the allegations that stemmed from a 2002 police report detailing an alleged attack on an unidentified woman with whom Welch was in a relationship at the time to be a challenge.

“Those are something that have come up every time he has had an election, and he has been able to overcome them,” Willis said. “I think that that will probably ring true this time also — there’s nothing new in that that he hasn’t had put at him before.”

Navigating the “pros and the cons of the Madigan legacy” could be the greatest challenge, said Chris Mooney, a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Mooney views Welch’s Madigan-related challenges in two ways.

On the one hand, “people will hold Madigan up as the standard in terms of electoral success,” Mooney said.

Welch will be judged on how well he can emulate that political prowess — but escape “the negative side of Madigan, the toxic work environment of the Statehouse.



Then House Speaker Mike Madigan, left, in July; State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, right, in September.


Then-House Speaker Mike Madigan, left, in July; state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, right, in September.
Neal Earley/Sun-Times; Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP

“I mean it’s been toxic for as long as I’ve been around and certainly long before that, and a lot of that is fueled by hyper partisanship,” the UIC professor said. “And a lot of it flowed from Mike Madigan’s personality — very close to the vest, very uptight, very, you know, very paranoid, you know, not friendly, he’s on everybody’s case.”

The #MeToo scandal that called into question Madigan’s handling of sexual harassment allegations within his own organization “crashed some of that toxicity and demonstrated how bad it was down there,” Mooney said.

All that presents challenges to Welch.

“He’s got to solve some of the problems, he’s going to be held to account, to a standard that’s pretty high on the electoral side, so those are the challenges,” Mooney said. “As a new person, he’s going to have the benefit of the doubt for a little while. … He’s going to bring in new ideas. He’s not Madigan at all — I mean his personality is like 100% opposite of Mike Madigan as far as I can tell.

“So that’s sort of a breath of fresh air — to have a positive, outgoing, forward-facing speaker as opposed to the speaker that’s hiding behind a chief of staff, the wizard that you can never see, the guy that never answered your question, that kind of speaker.”



State House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, holds his first news conference after being sworn in at the Bank of Springfield Center, earlier this month.


State House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, holds his first news conference after being sworn in at the Bank of Springfield Center, earlier this month.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, a close Welch ally who held the Bible when the new speaker took the oath of office earlier this month, focused on the electoral side of things and named fundraising as a “major problem” looking ahead to 2022.

“The system has to prove that they’ll support Welch as speaker,” the West Side Democrat said, pointing to unions and other groups that supported Madigan during his tenure. “We need to see where their loyalty is, and if it’s with the party or if it was with Speaker Madigan.”



Newly elected House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch takes the oath of office at the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center earlier this month.


Newly elected House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch takes the oath of office at the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center earlier this month.
Justin L. Fowler /The State Journal-Register via AP

One labor leader, the head of the Madigan-aligned Chicago Federation of Labor — which has an ownership stake in the Sun-Times — has said the organization is “eager to partner with Speaker Welch,” though what that partnership will look like remains to be seen.

Welch will also have to figure out working relationships with his House colleagues as well as the other three members of the “four tops,” Flynn Currie said, using the nickname for the Democratic and Republican leadership in the Illinois House and Senate.

They’ll have to continue to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and fill a $4 billion hole in the state’s pocketbook. Given that challenge, Ford hopes legislators on both sides of the aisle don’t “waste this moment by not supporting the speaker.”

via Chicago Sun-Times

January 24, 2021 at 11:10AM

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