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Welch elected as Illinois’ first Black House Speaker

In a historic victory, State Representative Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a Democrat from Hillside, was elected Illinois’ first-ever Black House Speaker, ending the long era for veteran State Representative Michael Madigan, while ushering in a new chapter of Black political power in Springfield.

After four busy days of closed-door meetings, Welch came out on top in votes among House Democrats, who struggled to replace Madigan after he fell short of the 60 votes needed for a record 19th term as House Speaker. In the end, Welch received 60 votes, but some news outlets reported that Welch had as many as 69 votes out of the 73 Democrats in the Illinois Assembly.

Welch was elected over Republican Jim Durkin of Western Springs by a vote of 70 to 44 and was sworn in at about 1:45 p.m. on July 13.

Welch’s victory is the latest in a new chapter of Black political power in Springfield. In 2019, State Senator Kimberly Lightford was elected as Illinois’ first Black woman to serve as Senate Majority Leader.

Welch’s bid for the power seat gained momentum after he drew support from the 21-member Illinois House Black Caucus, who endorsed Madigan as he fought for his position amid a ComEd bribery scandal where he was implicated, but not charged with wrongdoing.

Governor J.B. Pritzker and Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth called on Madigan to step down as House Speaker, which he served for 38 years – a record in U.S. history.

Madigan defied those calls and forged to continue in a role that established him as uncompromising, powerful figure who created an invincible political machine in Springfield. However, on January 10, Mad- igan won only 51 votes, falling short by nine votes to gain the necessary 60 for another term. He then temporarily withdrew his bid, leaving a field wide open for new Democratic candidates amid doubts that any one of them would be able to win the 60 votes to replace Madigan.

The Black Caucus was silent until late Monday evening when they elected Welch to fill the seat.

Of the 21 House members of the Black Caucus, all, but State Representative Maurice West (D-Rockford), had supported Madigan for another term.

Welch went up against State Representative Ann Williams from Chi- cago, who had the second highest votes with 18. She eventually drop- ped out as Welch gained steam with additional votes from the Illinois Latinx Caucus.

State Representative Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego), had three votes. State Representative Kathleen Willis (D-Addison), dropped out of the race before the vote, giving her support to Williams. Kifowit also withdrew from the race.

House Speaker Welch A 011321
HOUSE SPEAKER Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, delivers his remarks after taking the Oath of Office on Wednesday, January 13 at the Bank of Springfield Center. (Credit: Justin L. Fowler of The State Journal-Register)

Madigan, who has been Speaker for all, but two years since 1983, issued a statement congratulating Welch as “Speaker-elect” minutes before lawmakers were set to make the vote official.

“As I prepare to pass the Speaker’s gavel to a new generation of Democratic leadership, I want to thank the people of my district and the members of the House Democratic Caucus for the faith and trust they have placed in me over the years,” Madigan said in a statement on Wednesday, Jan. 13. “I want to thank my staff for their hard work on behalf of every member of this caucus. It has been the honor of a lifetime to help bring people of different experiences and backgrounds together to serve our state.

“It is time for new leadership in the House. I wish all the best for Speaker-elect Welch as he begins a historic speakership. 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.”

The House Speaker is chosen by House members and can receive both Republican and Democratic votes. There are 73 Democrats and 45 Republicans, who will be seated in the 102nd General Assembly.

Traditionally, however, a majority party speaker receives votes from mem- bers of their own party.

On January 12, Welch said in a statement, “I am honored to be called upon my colleagues from the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to put my name in for consideration. This historic moment in Illinois and across the country calls for new representation and unity of democratic beliefs. I want to thank Speaker Madigan for his leadership—it has been a challenging year for us all, but I am grateful for his commitment to serving the public.”

Welch has served in the Illinois House since 2013. A partner attorney with the law firm, Ancel Glink, Welch has a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and a law degree from John Marshall Law School. He is a former member and president of Proviso Township High Schools District 209 Board of Education.

Welch has most recently been in the news as the chairman of a House committee launched by Republicans to investigate Madigan’s ties to Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest public utility, which admitted in a bombshell court document in July, to seeking to influence the Speaker to pass favorable legislation to the company in exchange for jobs for Madigan’s associates.

Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing, but the House investigating committee sought to prove conduct unbecoming of a legislator, not to charge him with a crime. Welch and two other Democrats on the committee voted to end the investigation after just three meetings in four months.

This report included information from the Illinois Capitol News Service.

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