Addressing reporters after he was sworn in, state House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, 49, said he hadn’t yet had time to digest the historic nature of the day since it’s been a “whirlwind 48 hours.”
SPRINGFIELD — Signaling the end of one era and the beginning of another, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch was elected the new speaker of the Illinois House on Wednesday — succeeding Mike Madigan, the longest serving statehouse speaker in U.S. history.
Welch is the first African American to win the powerful leadership position.
And unlike his predecessor, Welch said he supports limits on how long any one legislator should be allowed to hold the gavel.
The Hillside Democrat was elected, 70 to 44, over House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs on a partisan vote.
Madigan, 78, in a symbolic passing of the torch of leadership cast his vote for Welch.
Addressing reporters after he was sworn in, Welch said he hadn’t yet had time to digest the historic nature of the day since it’s been a “whirlwind 48 hours.”
He looked ahead, saying “it’s time to get to work,” pointing to getting the coronavirus under control and the state’s budget woes as priorities.
Asked what he’d do differently than his predecessor, Welch pointed to the rules that govern the House’s procedures.
“Many members said they want to sit down, sooner than later, and show me what they believe should be looked at … I want to examine the rules and possibly make changes — possibly make a lot of changes — I don’t know what those changes are, but I know there are conversations that are going to take place pretty quickly,” he said.
He also signaled support for a 10-year term limit for the position, adding “let’s pass a bill” when asked about it.
The vote to elect Welch speaker came just minutes after the swearing-in of newly elected members of the General Assembly.
State Rep. Maurice West of Rockford nominated Welch and asked the body to give a standing ovation for the “legacy and the service of Speaker Michael J. Madigan.”
Democrats and most Republicans took to their feet, some GOP House members immediately, others more slowly.
In a statement shortly before the swearing in, Madigan said “it’s time for new leadership in the House.”
“I wish all the best for Speaker-elect Welch as he begins a historic speakership,” Madigan said. “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.”
Regarded as a Madigan loyalist, Welch, 49, was first sworn in to the House in 2013. He is the 70th state House speaker and the first Black person to hold the position.
Welch first entered the race on Monday, after Madigan’s stunning decision to suspend his own campaign kicked off a series of fast-moving developments – including challengers dropping out and new candidates emerging.
Welch has drawn criticism from Republicans for his role as chairman of the House Special Investigative Committee that was charged with investigating Madigan last year. The committee ended abruptly after meeting three times and calling only one witness.
The panel did not find that Madigan engaged in wrongdoing in his dealings with ComEd. Madigan was implicated in an alleged bribery scheme in which ComEd is accused of sending $1.3 million to Madigan’s associates for doing little or no work for the utility in order to curry favor with the powerful politician.
Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing. But the federal probe blocked his path to another term as speaker, a position he’s held for all but two years since 1983 — longer than any other statehouse speaker in the nation.
Durkin said he hoped the way Welch led the panel is “not an indication” of how the House will operate. Despite their disagreements, Durkin said he intended to work with Welch.
“I’m not a person who comes from the party of ‘no,’” Durkin said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others took to Twitter to congratulate Welch.
It’s a momentous day in Illinois. For the first time, a Black Illinoisan will be Speaker of the Illinois House. Congratulations to @RepChrisWelch on your historic election. I’m excited to work with you to address the needs of residents across Chicago and our entire state.
— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) January 13, 2021
Congratulations to Speaker of the Illinois House, @RepChrisWelch. I am grateful to Speaker Welch for his work on behalf of his community and his partnership with Cook County.
— Toni Preckwinkle (@ToniPreckwinkle) January 13, 2021
Welch’s bid also drew concern from female legislators and others over a 2002 police report detailing an alleged attack on an unidentified woman with whom Welch was in a relationship.
In the police report, the woman said she was returning to Welch’s home to retrieve some of her belongings after their relationship ended. During an argument, she called Welch a “loser,” and he became “enraged” and is alleged to have “grabbed her hair with both hands while in the kitchen and slammed her head backwards numerous times on the counter top.”
Welch denied grabbing the woman. He was never charged in the case.
In a statement, Welch blamed Republicans for bringing up what he called a “verbal argument” that occurred “nearly two decades ago.”
“I have reconciled with the individual since that night,” Welch said in the statement. “In fact, after our dispute we sought out the authorities ourselves. Their family lives in my district and are proud supporters of my public service and work. However, I must convey my dismay over the lack of decency displayed by the GOP politicians and their urge to use this report against me.”
One House Democrat, North Side state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, voted present because of those allegations.
She issued a statement saying that while she’s had a “strong relationship with and a great deal of respect for Speaker Welch and believe him to be a good man,” she hopes the allegations are “vigorously reviewed.
“I feel strongly that I have been too outspoken on issues of sexual harassment and domestic violence to simply ignore these questions,” Cassidy said. “I have worked with victims for decades. I am a survivor of domestic violence. I trust women. I know the complexities of choosing to pursue charges or other legal action. This isn’t a simple situation — and it should not be dismissed as such by any of us.”