Welch seeks to set a new tone in Illinois House

By Peter Hancock 
Capitol News Illinois

Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch takes questions from members of the news media on Jan. 13, the day he was chosen as Speaker of the Illinois House. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)

SPRINGFIELD – The election of Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch as Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives marked the beginning of a new era in state politics.

Not only is he the first Black speaker in state history, he is also the first speaker in 24 years whose name is not Michael Madigan.

But Welch assumes the gavel at a precarious time in state history, a time marked by a deadly pandemic that has resulted in an economic crisis and a steep drop in state revenues, as well as a time of social unrest over racial inequities, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Well, I definitely agree that I’m taking over at a challenging time,” Welch said during a podcast interview with Capitol News Illinois. “Any one of the things that you just mentioned makes for an interesting session by itself. And I’m inheriting a situation where we’re going to have to deal with all of that all at once. And so I think that where you start is where have already started. And that’s by putting a diverse leadership team in place, a team that reflects the diversity of our state, which is our strength.”

Welch unveiled his new leadership team on Jan. 21. It includes a mix of old and new faces. Rep. Greg Harris, of Chicago, remains House Majority Leader and Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, of Peoria, remains deputy majority leader. But the team also includes some newer faces such as Chicago-area Reps. Mary Flowers, Jaime Andrade Jr., Robyn Gabel, Elizabeth Hernandez, Marcus Evans and Delia Ramirez, as well as Urbana Rep. Carol Ammons.

It will be some time, though, before the House is able to fully get back to work. Welch has already announced that the House will come back into session on Feb. 10 for the sole purpose of adopting new rules, which are expected to allow for remote committee meetings that will then occur regularly over the next couple of months. But other substantial action at the Statehouse in Springfield is unlikely to occur until at least sometime in April.

At that point, Welch said, he expects the General Assembly to move into high gear.

“As we approach April and May, as we’re getting to crunch time, I anticipate being in Springfield a lot more than we have over the past year,” he said.

Welch, 49, of Hillside, said he was born and raised in the 7th District that he now represents. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and the John Marshall Law School.

While at Northwestern, Welch also played baseball. A left fielder who was known for his speed, he wouldn’t disclose his batting average, saying only that it was below .300, but he described the experience as “one of the best times of my life.” But he did not play his senior year, saying he chose to focus on his grades that year “because I knew I wanted to go to law school.”

As speaker, Welch faces a challenge distinguishing himself from his predecessor. That’s because many members of the House were not even born yet the first time Madigan was elected speaker in 1983.

“I really speak very highly of Speaker Madigan,” Welch said. “We wouldn’t have 73 Democrats and a super majority in our chamber without Speaker Madigan. But I will say that I still have to be Chris Welch.”

Madigan, through much of his tenure as speaker, was known for keeping a tight grip on the House. It was often said that no bill ever reached the floor of the House for a vote unless it had his blessing, including such issues as legislative ethics reform.

Welch, by contrast, has indicated he may try to govern with a softer hand by relaxing some of the House rules.

“We’re being sincere in taking a quick, hard examination on these rules,” he said. “But you know, we can’t do much until rules are approved. And so our intent is to let this go on for the next couple of weeks. And Feb. 10, We will have a vote on the rules. I anticipate that there will be some changes to the rules from the past.”

Welch also said he hopes to repair the Democratic majority’s relationship with House Republicans, including Minority Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, who led an effort last year to have Madigan removed from office over his role in a yearslong bribery scheme involving utility giant Commonwealth Edison.

Welch, who chaired the special investigating committee that was formed to investigate Madigan’s role in that scheme, played a key role in preventing the filing of formal disciplinary charges. But now, as speaker, Welch said he hopes to rebuild a working relationship with Republicans.

“And I actually called him ( Saturday, Jan. 23) to talk to him about the intent about going back to session to improve the rules on Feb. 10, find out who his point person is on the rules,” Welch said. “And he was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from me on a Saturday morning.”

“That’s my style,” he added. “And that’s what I intend to do going forward is to keep an open line of communication. We actually live less than five miles from each other. When things open back up, we’ll probably meet regularly for coffee.”