On the eve of his 50th anniversary in the Illinois General Assembly Tuesday night, House Speaker Mike Madigan’s apparent replacement, State Rep. Chris Welch (D-Hillside), was confident he secured the necessary votes to become Illinois’ first Black House speaker. UPDATE: During Wednesday's vote, Welch secured 70 votes -- ten more than needed. He called for unity and respect among members.
Welch shored up his support in less than 24 hours, quietly floating his candidacy for the House’s top job shortly after the embattled longtime speaker on Monday announced he was suspending his campaign for a 19th term in the role, but not altogether withdrawing. Madigan, the longest-serving state house speaker in the nation, has lost key support for re-election for speaker since July, when federal prosecutors named him “Public Official A” in a years-long bribery scheme perpetrated by electric utility Commonwealth Edison aimed at currying favor with Madigan. The speaker has not been charged.
By Monday evening, Welch had the unanimous support of the House’s Black Caucus — which had previously been on board for Madigan — and by Tuesday night was telling reporters he had the necessary 60 votes from within the entire House Democratic Caucus.
The support came despite media reports re-upping a police report from 2002, which details an incident in which an ex-girlfriend of Welch’s told police that the future state representative “grabbed her hair with both hands while in the kitchen and proceeded to slam her head backwards several times on the countertop” after she called him “a loser” when going to retrieve belongings from Welch’s house after they had broken up.
The ex-girlfriend ultimately did not press charges. In a Tuesday statement, Welch characterized the incident as a “verbal argument” and said he and the woman had reconciled, and touted her family’s political support.
“I understand that the circumstances around this incident are troubling and I will, to the best of my ability, answer questions while respecting the other individual’s privacy,” Welch said in his statement.
Also unearthed were two lawsuits filed against Welch when he was President of the Proviso School Board alleging sexual harassment and retaliation from school district employees, though both cases were ultimately terminated. Welch said he was “dismay[ed]” and accused Republicans of floating the report to discredit him.
Though women’s groups statewide had been pushing for a female House speaker throughout the weekend, the coalition was silent Tuesday evening after both remaining women in the race — Reps. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) and Stephanie Kifowit (D-Oswego) — dropped out during House Democrats’ private caucus, and Welch ultimately won 50 votes. Downstate Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) garnered 15 votes.
On her way out of the Bank of Springfield Center at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday after the House finished its business for the night, Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria), a member of the House Black Caucus, told reporters she “was absolutely assuaged” by Welch’s answers about the police report in the Democrats’ private caucus meeting. Gordon-Booth tied Welch’s likely win to the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ efforts to pass major omnibus bills addressing racial equity in areas like education, economic opportunity, healthcare and criminal justice — most of which seem poised to pass to Gov. JB Pritzker’s desk after late nights in both the House and Senate.
“Here we are on the precipice of making history…having the opportunity to elect the first African American [as House speaker] in Illinois’ 202-year history,” Gordon-Booth said. “That’s something to be incredibly proud of.”
Many members who previously supported Williams in a Sunday night vote among the caucus switched their support to Welch, including Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin). Moeller told reporters Tuesday that Welch’s support and leadership on women’s issues — including abortion rights — was a major reason to trust him, despite the police report and lawsuits.
“Certainly I take any women’s health and women’s rights are very important to me,” Moeller said. “These issues aren’t taken lightly but I was satisfied with Chris’ explanation of the events.”
Republicans publicly and privately aired their distrust of Welch, who chaired a Special Investigative Committee launched by House GOP Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) this fall, which was supposed to examine whether Madigan did anything untoward as a legislator. Instead, the bipartisan panel ended in a deadlock over whether to issue any sort of charge after just three meetings, angering Republicans, who accused Welch of protecting the speaker from having to testify in front of the committee.
Durkin on Tuesday lamented that he used to work well with Welch, but said the Democrat lost his trust in the past few months as the committee’s work unfolded — or didn’t. The Republican leader also claimed Welch had sent two lobbyists to him trying to broker a deal on his behalf, to which Durkin said: “If they think for some reason the hatchet’s going to be buried, I’m not going to get involved in that race.”
“To me, I consider Chris Welch an extension of Mike Madigan,” Durkin said. “And we’ve got to break from the past. And trust me: Mike Madigan is going to do everything he can to make sure that he passes that baton off to somebody that’s going to continue the business model of Madigan Inc.”
Rep. Dan Didech (D-Buffalo Grove), who voted for Williams in the first round vote Sunday night, said Durkin’s assertion was “preposterous.”
“Listen. We have the first African American speaker in the history of Illinois. The idea that he’s ‘Madigan 2.0’ is preposterous,” Didech said. “So, no. I’m going to be very proud to support Chris Welch. My constituents demanded that we get rid of Mike Madigan and we got it done.”
Didech said he voted “present” in Tuesday’s vote “out of a deep respect for Rep. Williams,” and said Welch’s explanation for the police report “seem[ed] sufficient.”
“Chris is going to be the next speaker and I’m going to be proud to support him. Very happy that we’re going to see a change in leadership in Illinois. That’s what people have been demanding and I was proud to be a part of a small group of legislators that made it happen.”
Lawmakers face a Wednesday noon deadline to select a new speaker, or else be hamstrung by the House’s own rules that stipulate the chamber can’t move forward with any legislative business before electing a speaker.