SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The Illinois House on Wednesday elected its first Black speaker to replace the longest-serving legislative leader in modern U.S. history, picking Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch for the job and pushing aside Michael Madigan after he was implicated in an ongoing bribery investigation.
Welch, an eight-year House veteran from the Chicago suburb of Hillside, garnered 70 votes from the 118-member House just days after emerging as the front-runner alternative to Madigan, 78, who was first inaugurated as a House member a half-century ago.
Madigan has wielded the gavel 36 of the past 38 years and had sought another term in his post despite 19 members of his caucus announcing their opposition in the past six months. But after coming up short in a Sunday caucus vote, Madigan suspended his campaign, allowing lawmakers to consider others rather than force a potentially drawn-out floor fight that would paralyze all other business.
“It is time for new leadership in the House,” Madigan said in a statement. “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.”
Last summer, Madigan was identified in a Justice Department investigation as the beneficiary of a yearslong bribery venture involving ComEd.
It has thus far yielded a $200 million fine on the utility giant, a ComEd executive's guilty plea and indictments of four others, including Madigan's closest confidante. Madigan has not been charged with a crime and has denied wrongdoing.
Illinois' considerable challenges await Welch. COVID-19 has claimed 17,800 lives in the state and forced a House retreat to the downtown convention center, where lawmakers with face coverings could spread out to avoid transmission. There's also a $4 billion hole in the current state budget, largely driven by tax revenue lost to the pandemic, on top of billions of dollars of existing indebtedness.
The first Black leader of the House follows two African American Senate presidents: Cecil Partee from 1975 to 1977 and Emil Jones Jr., who molded the political career of a young Barack Obama, from 2003 to 2009.
Welch has been part of Madigan's inner circle, serving as chairman of the powerful Executive Committee. He was chosen last fall to be chairman of an investigative committee demanded by Republicans to review Madigan's involvement in the ComEd scandal. Welch abruptly brought the probe to a close, claiming that the Republicans had staged a “sham show trial.”
That incensed House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, who had prompted the committee review by filing a charge of conduct unbecoming a legislator. On Tuesday, with Welch's prospects rising, Durkin derided him as a continuation of “the model of Madigan Inc.”
In his first comments as speaker, Welch tried to bridge the decadeslong partisan divide.
“Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats or Republicans, because I want to talk about us being united,” he said. “We're going to work together to move this state forward.”