New Illinois House speaker has a big job before him

We congratulate Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who will be the first African American speaker in the chamber’s history, an important sign of progress that cannot be overstated.

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Illinois state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, takes the oath of office to become the Illinois Speaker of the House for the 102nd General Assembly for the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center, Wednesday.

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State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch was elected speaker of the Illinois House on Wednesday, deftly working the Democratic caucus since Monday to gain 70 votes, more than enough to win. Illinois will have a new House speaker for the first time in decades. It is a seismic moment in the state’s history.

We congratulate Welch, D-Hillside, who will be the first African American speaker in the chamber’s history, an important sign of progress that cannot be overstated. But it is not an easy job.

He takes on one of the toughest assignments in state politics. He will have to work with — and gain and keep the trust — of a caucus that has members across a wide range of the political spectrum, from conservative Democrats downstate who are half a step from being Republicans to suburban Democrats and strongly liberal Democrats in Chicago, some of whom identify as democratic socialists.

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It presents Welch, who has been in the Legislature for eight years and entered the race for speaker just on Monday, with a herculean task. It is one at which he must succeed even as he has to make clear that he is his own man. The issues ahead are huge: The budget. Pension funding. Maintaining social services — the social safety net — during a pandemic. School funding. The environment. Gun violence.

Seen as a close ally to former Speaker Michael J. Madigan, Welch will have to win over Republican legislators. It may help that both Welch and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, come from the Near West suburbs, although on Wednesday, the state Republican Party chairman called Welch’s selection “a travesty for the people of Illinois.”

At first, the Democratic caucus could not agree on a winner in a series of behind-closed-doors votes. Welch finally cleared the 60-vote hurdle by reportedly negotiating a deal with the only challenger who did not drop out, state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea.

With a ringside seat at the Legislature’s deal-making as chairman of the influential House Executive Committee, Welch has gained valuable experience in negotiating, leading and setting priorities. He has been a conscientious, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of legislator who does not take things for granted. We were glad to hear him say on Wednesday that he will be “open and accessible.”

Welch does not take the speaker’s post without controversy. In 2012, Pioneer Press reported that Welch, a former Proviso High School District 209 president, had at least 19 close friends and relatives in jobs in the school district. Also in 2012, the district paid $400,000 to settle a defamation lawsuit over anonymous blog posts traced to Welch’s computer.

Other cases have drawn wider scrutiny recently. According to a 2002 police report, an ex-girlfriend told Hillside police Welch had slammed her head into a kitchen countertop, although the woman did not press charges. A different woman sued in Welch in 2010 for sexual harassment and retaliation, a case that was dismissed after the start of settlement talks. Welch was never charged with anything.

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In the #MeToo era, it is widely agreed such allegations should not be swept under the rug. But as a state representative, Welch has sided with women’s groups on important legislation, including abortion rights.

He was the chief sponsor of the Illinois TRUST Act, which prohibits the detainment of individuals solely because of immigration detainers. The choice of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, he has been a leader on African American rights.

Welch has proved himself to be a negotiator rather than a doctrinaire lawmaker. In response to a 2016 Chicago Sun-Times questionnaire, he said it was time to start re-investing in public higher education and public transportation. On Wednesday, the Illinois AFL-CIO hailed him for fighting for Illinois families. Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery called him “a true public servant.”

Welch will lead a party that has a majority in the Illinois House, which will give him enormous influence. Everyone in the state should hope he uses it wisely.

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