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Speaker Welch holds the gavel, but he’s not looking to wear a crown: ‘I am really here to get things done’

In his first appearance before the City Club of Chicago since becoming speaker, Welch laid out his top four legislative priorities, a list that he said “kind of set” itself. 

Newly elected House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch takes the oath of office at the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Newly elected House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch takes the oath of office at the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Justin L. Fowler /The State Journal-Register via AP file

Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch is Mike Madigan’s successor in the top Illinois House leadership position, but on Tuesday he expressed no interest in being “the new party king.”

The Hillside Democrat said he’s focused on getting things done and collaborating with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

The newly minted speaker said “much of the change Illinois needs is around how we treat each other, how we comport ourselves as leaders.”

In his first appearance before the City Club of Chicago since becoming speaker, Welch laid out his top four legislative priorities, a list that he said “kind of set” itself.

Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic is a top priority, and Welch said money from the latest federal relief package will “help us get the vaccine out there and distributed,” reopen schools and help small businesses.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks during a “virtual address” to the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks during a “virtual address” to the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday.
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A balanced budget “that protects our most vulnerable,” ethics reform — Welch said “you’re going to hear me talk about that a lot” — and the state’s upcoming redistricting process round out the top of his list.

“We have to rebuild trust,” Welch said. “You take any one of those, it makes for an interesting session, but those four things combined is really interesting for a new speaker.”

It’s been two months since House Democrats elected Welch to wield the speaker’s gavel, after Madigan fell short in his bid to retain the position that he had held for much of the past four decades. Madigan also served as state Democratic Party chair, but he stepped down from that post last month.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch speaks at the Bank of Springfield Center in January.
Justin L. Fowler /The State Journal-Register, distributed by the Associated Press

Welch remained publicly neutral in the party leadership battle, which was ultimately won by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly.

Madigan’s tenure was often described as his “reign,” but Welch said he has no designs on the throne.

“The media and political junkies assume I’m here to be the new party king — I don’t want to be anybody’s king,” Welch said. “That could be the furthest from the truth. I’m not here to roll out top-down decisions and direction on policymaking and legislative.

“I am really here to get things done — fast and decisively, but done well and collaboratively. People need us to act, they need to see us do that by working together.”

Along with his legislative priorities, Welch listed other issues that are also top of mind for him, including welcoming, integrating and protecting immigrant families, protecting women’s reproductive health care and eliminating wage and health care disparities.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch addresses the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch addresses the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday.
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He said on Thursday the House will take up the health care bill crafted by members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus ahead of their January lame duck session. That bill is aimed in part at mitigating those disparities in health care.

“I think it’s extremely important that we are very intentional about providing access to health care, not just to the wealthy, but to lower income communities as well,” Welch said. “We have to not just talk about it, we have to do the work.”