Exit interview: Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch reflects on his first legislative session

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House Speaker Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch said the historic nature of being elected the first Black speaker did not fully hit him until having breakfast with his family on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.


It was clear from the start of the start of the 102nd Illinois General Assembly that this year would be different.

Not only were lawmakers forced to conduct business in different ways, such as holding remote committee hearings, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was a new man at the top of the Illinois House of Representatives. 

House Speaker Michael Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in American history, was toppled by his own caucus amid a corruption probe that has ensnarled some of his closest allies and confidants. 

In an interview in his statehouse office with Lee Enterprises state government reporter Brenden Moore and Quincy Media statehouse bureau chief Mike Miletich, Welch reflected on his first six months on the job. 

Here’s that interview, lightly edited for length and clarity:

BRENDEN MOORE: You’ve been on the job for six months. What has surprised you most?

SPEAKER CHRIS WELCH: I think the thing that surprised me most was the amount of time involved. This is really a very time-intensive job if you’re going to do it well. If you care about the state and want to do a good job, you’ve got to put the time in. It’s really seven days a week, especially while we’re in session. We’re here pretty much Monday through Friday — we being the leadership team, me and my senior staff. And then on weekends, I’m in my district office. So even when I’m home, I’m not home.

BM: Walk us through a typical day for a Speaker of the House? Whether it was you or Speaker Madigan, we don’t see you on the House floor much.

CW: There is no typical day, every day is quite different. Although, I would say that everyday is definitely filled with a lot of meetings. You don’t get to spend a lot of time on the floor because you’re the administrator, you’re the one that runs this place, keeps the trains on the tracks. We have a whole lot of people that work for this operation that keep us going and so we have personnel issues that we have to deal with, we also have our members that want to come in and see me all day — and that’s Democrats and Republicans. And my policy is if a member of this chamber wants to meet with the speaker, I meet with them, Democrat or Republican.

Every day is a new day and, you know, I love coming into this building each and every day I have the opportunity to be the speaker.

MIKE MILETICH: Can you think back to some of your favorite accomplishments over this past year?

We were able to get things done in a bipartisan way, like ethics reform and Medicaid reform. We did some great things around here and we’re just getting started. So I’m looking forward to some even bigger things happening down the road.

BM: Are there items left unchecked on your list? You said you were just getting started, what more would you like to accomplish?

CW: If I had a priority list, I would tell you everything on my priority list got done. We got some big things done that had only been talked about before: the omnibus affordable housing bill, expanding voter rights in our elections bill.

There’s so many things that we can do here when we’re here. We just have to roll up our sleeves and, and, and put the partisanship aside and get it done.

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BM: Speaking of partisanship, there’s a sign outside your office that says ‘it’s a new day,’ which has been a slogan of yours this past session. But, some Republicans don’t feel like it’s a new day.

CW: I don’t even think Republicans believe what they’re saying. If they would drop their talking points for a minute and you actually talk to them outside of the playground that we’re in, they would be honest with you and tell you that it is a new day. Many of them have come and sat in this office and they’ve said, everyone of them, this is the first time they’ve ever been in the speaker’s office.

I have thank you notes in my office — I got one when I arrived here today from a Republican, thanking me for the help that I gave on an initiative. There’s countless of those. I’m not gonna put individuals out there, that’s not what I’m here to do. They know that I’m here, they know that I’ve been accessible and open to them and working with them, and I have helped not just Democrats, but several Republicans get priorities done this session. I’m gonna continue to do that, regardless of the partisan political rhetoric that’s being spewed out there.

MM: What is your relationship like with the governor and the other legislative leaders?

CW: I have a great relationship with the governor and the other legislative leaders. I don’t think we’re gonna ever always agree. I think what’s important is when you have a good relationship as a foundation, when you disagree, you disagree respectfully. And I think that’s what’s happened this session.



Gov. J.B. Pritzker during a ceremony at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library on Wednesday signs a bill making Juneteenth an official state holiday in Illinois.



JUSTIN L. FOWLER, THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER VIA AP


To me, it’s extremely important that you do this job in an open, accessible way. And you do it with everyone: the governor, the leaders, the rank-and-file members, the public, you guys…

When I come in here, I try to do the best that I can. But I think every day we can be better. And will we be better next session? I think we will, because we’re going to learn from what happened here and we’re going to continue to build on that and try to be better.

MM: There were some members of your caucus that aired disagreements with one another on the House floor. But you have said disagreements are a good thing. Explain that a little bit.

CW: Well, we have a diverse caucus. Diversity is a strength in our state, and it shows up in our caucus. Diversity comes in a whole lot of different forms. It comes in race, religion, gender, ethnicity, culture and, with that comes a diversity of thought. And when you govern from a big-D democracy standpoint, you can’t stifle debate, you have to let the debate take place. I’ve always said as long as that debate is professional and courteous, it should go forth. We need civility and compassion in politics, but we also need debate. That’s extremely important. And I think what you saw here was democracy on display, and I’m proud of that.

BM: You’ve talked about openness and transparency. You’re on social media frequently, often posting pictures of various guests who come into your office — a place many had never seen during the previous speaker’s tenure. Was that a deliberate point?

CW: I think the only way to govern is to be yourself. I am who I am, it’s not gonna change. If you look at me and the way I operated before I became speaker, I’ve operated the same way. If you go back on my social media and look at what I did when we were in session and welcome visitors to my office, it’s the same Chris Welch. I can’t be any different. That’s who I am. I think if I tried to be different and not accessible and not transparent, I wouldn’t enjoy the job.

MM: The session started with your election as the first Black speaker. It ended with the governor signing a bill making Juneteenth a state holiday. How do you feel that there could be a young boy or girl that’s looking up to you knowing that you’re in this room?

CW: It’s awesome. How we started the session and how it’s ending is just poetic to me. And for me personally, to be the first black speaker of the Illinois House, the first black person to serve in this role in our state’s 200 plus year history, is just truly an honor and a privilege that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life

MM: In a time when there are many states that are taking voting opportunities from minority communities, could this be an example for other states across the country that diverse voices are needed?

CW: We are an example. This is what happens when you govern with… increased participation in our, in our democracy. But there’s a lot of people still in this country that don’t want to see this happen. There’s a lot of people in this country that want to see us go backward where people of color and women don’t have opportunities in this space. We’re not going back there, we’re moving forward. We’re going to continue to progress. At least we’re going to lead in Illinois, and to be the example of how things should be done.

BM: The former speaker was heavily involved in reelecting his members from a strategy and a fundraising standpoint. How involved do you plan to be?

CW: Very involved. I’m the leader of our Democratic Caucus. And, as any leader would, you get involved to support your members. And I’m going to do whatever they ask me to do. I’m going to visit their districts, I’m going to support them every step of the way because without them, there is no Chris Welch. Without them, there is no first Black Speaker of the House. Without them, there’s no us. So, what’s my job? To help them in any way that I can.

MM: What do you think former Speaker Madigan would say about this past session?

CW: I think he said we did okay. He didn’t say a lot of words. You can do better. We did okay.

BM: Have you spoken with the former speaker since being elected?

CW: I spoke with him a couple of times very early on, so I haven’t spoken with him in some time now, you know. But I’m sure I’ll talk to him again.


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June 18, 2021 at 06:27PM

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