Speaker Welch charts ‘new direction’ for Illinois House

Speaker Welch charts ‘new direction’ for Illinois House

Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch addresses the Illinois House of Representatives, during its session at the Bank of Springfield Center on Wednesday. | Justin L. Fowler /The State Journal-Register, distributed by the Associated Press

Welch, 49, has already accomplished the first thing on his agenda, which was to sit down with staff and prepare the House’s calendar for upcoming session days. It will be announced Thursday.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch hasn’t had much time to digest the new position he’s in — or had much sleep over the last few days while trying to win that position — but he said he’s Thursday he’s charting a path forward, one that will be shaped by input from the House Democratic Caucus.

Welch was walking and talking when the Chicago Sun-Times reached him Thursday morning, just before the House convened. His wife ShawnTe, and their two children, Tyler and Marley, surprised him by coming to Springfield Wednesday after members of the House were sworn in and the Hillside Democrat was elected speaker, 70 to 44, over House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs.

He’s the 70th speaker of the Illinois House, but the first Black person to hold that powerful position.

Welch, 49, has already accomplished the first thing on his agenda, which was to sit down with staff and prepare the House’s calendar for upcoming session days. It will be announced Thursday.

“I do plan to have the legislature very involved in the process,” Welch said. “This year, we’re working through COVID protocols. We’ll use the [Bank of Springfield] Center if we have to but we’re looking at a safe return to the capital, so that we can be engaged in the governing process in 2021.”

Normally the House would adopt its rules after members are sworn in, but Welch said he’s taken that off the table for Thursday’s session. He’s “promised my caucus that we would do an examination and make changes where we can possibly make changes and … we’re going to keep that promise right away.”

Setting the House rules is part of what Welch talked to the Democratic Caucus about while running for the speakership. They also talked about what the new leadership team would look like, as well as committee structures. All those are “the first things that I’m going to have to tackle,” Welch said, though he didn’t offer details.

That process begins today, the new speaker said.

Welch was elected speaker on Wednesday — succeeding Michael Madigan, the longest serving statehouse speaker in U.S. history.

Regarded as a Madigan loyalist, Welch entered the race Monday, after Madigan’s stunning decision to suspend his own campaign kicked off a series of fast-moving developments, as challengers dropped out and new candidates emerged.

Though he’s drawn criticism from Republicans for his role as chairman of the House Special Investigative Committee that was charged with investigating Madigan last year, Welch and Durkin said they want to work together in the next session.

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.

Welch denied grabbing the woman, and was never charged in the case.

Addressing concerns around the allegations and the belief by some that it should disqualify him, Welch said he thinks the work he’s done demonstrates the person he is.

“I believe that the work that I have done in the legislature has demonstrated who I am as a person … it demonstrates what people think of me because this happened pretty fast and many of my colleagues are the ones who encouraged me to do this,” Welch said. “… I think that’s because they know me, they’ve worked with me and I think there’s a smear campaign led by the Republican Party, and some in our party, to try to prevent this moment in history from happening. Many great moments in history, you have to go through things and I don’t see this [as being] any different.”

A Maywood native who also has lived in Bellwood, Welch considers himself a “kid from the woods,” and hopes his election shows “every Black boy and girl out there that no matter where you live, no matter where you come from … they can achieve” the same thing.

He’s received thousands of texts and emails from friends, family and supporters as well as from elected officials around the country, congratulating him on his ascension to the powerful leadership post.

“I think it’s important to focus on the fact that we have made history here in the state with a new speaker for the first time in … years,” Welch said. “We are going to govern in a new direction and it’s not going to be the same. I’m looking forward to being able to show that we’re going to bring some new and exciting things to this position.”

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