Welch’s first session wielding speaker’s gavel: Did he take ‘a great step?’ Or follow in Madigan’s footsteps?
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and the super-majority he now leads passed a bevy of bills during the first legislative session with Welch at the helm. Democrats say he did it with a “refreshing” collaborative approach. But Republicans say, for them the new boss is the same as the old boss.
SPRINGFIELD — Less than five months after freshly sworn-in Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch promised a “new day” in state government, Democrats in his caucus say he’s delivered “on every responsibility.”
But Republicans say Welch is still following the “playbook of 65th and Pulaski,” written and perfected by Welch’s tainted Southwest Side predecessor.
Welch and the super-majority Democratic Caucus he now leads passed a bevy of bills during the first spring legislative session with Welch at the helm.
In addition to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $42.2 billion state budget, the wide-ranging legislation touched on the criminal justice system and how to make it better for the Black and Brown people who interact with it, the teaching of Asian American history and increasing affordable housing.
Democrats also drew new legislative boundaries they promise will provide more equitable representation.
“I would say to people who don’t pay close attention to what we do in Springfield that we got some good things done, things they would be proud of,” Welch told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday. “We made some steps in a positive direction, we certainly have more work to do and this was a great step.”
The Hillside Democrat — who secured the speaker’s gavel in January — previously said passing ethics legislation was a priority for his tenure. Both chambers did pass an ethics reform bill in the session’s final days, although some Republicans say the measure is “weak.”
Beyond the legislative wins, Welch followed through on his support for term limits — implementing a House rule imposing a 10-year cap on himself and other legislators serving in leadership roles.
Term limits and ethics reforms were pushed to the front burner following the decades-long reign of former House Speaker Mike Madigan, who left office amid a scandal involving federal allegations against ComEd. Madigan has not been charged with any crime and denies wrongdoing, but the federal probe effectively ended his political career and allowed Welch to take over the House.
Democrats who also served under Madigan were pleased with Welch’s first session.
State Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, said he thought Welch could “hang his hat on a very successful first year.” As for Republicans’ concerns, Zalewski said reaching across the aisle is “always going to be hard in a map year” referring to the redrawing of legislative boundaries after the U.S. Census.
“It’s — by nature — a partisan exercise where emotions run high, and there’s not much anyone can do, let alone the speaker ... but on a number of things you saw Republicans and Democrats work together on individual issues,” Zalewski said. “There may not be a kumbaya moment on the floor where we say ‘bipartisanship carried the day,’ but I think Republicans can go back to their districts and point to things they worked with the majority party on.”
State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, who waged her own unsuccessful bid for the speaker’s gavel, said Welch “really embraced the strengths of the members in their individual areas of expertise — he really empowered the committee structure to make sure bills were properly vetted and considered.”
The Oswego Democrat also said it’s been “refreshing” to have a caucus meeting every week to keep members updated and that’s been beneficial “to collaboration and the work we have to do as a body.”
Madigan’s autocratic leadership style had been a growing sore point among some members of the caucus.
Pointing to the bills passed during the session, Welch’s seat mate, state Rep. La Shawn Ford said Welch and the caucus “delivered on every responsibility” and Democrats “felt emboldened to make more demands,” a change from the Madigan era.
The West Side Democrat chalked that up to Welch’s “open-door policy” and Welch’s role as a rank-and-file member just months ago, making him “more approachable than speaker Madigan.”
“The big picture was that Speaker Welch was able to hold the House together,” Ford said. “He picked up in the middle of a pandemic — this wasn’t a regular election ... I think he picked the ball up and he carried it across the finish line this session. To have the respect that he has from the House, on both sides of the aisle, says a lot.”
Respect is one thing. Reviews another.
And Republicans aren’t echoing Ford’s glowing assessment of the speaker’s first session.
Deputy Republican Leader Tom Demmer of Dixon, said on the House floor Monday “we’ve talked many times in this chamber, about it being a new day. ... What we’re seeing on this floor is the same dark old days, that we’ve struggled under for years.”
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said Tuesday his relationship with Welch “started off fine back in the early months, but kind of fell apart.”
The two have spoken a couple of times in the last two weeks, but “this grand gesture at the beginning of the year didn’t quite work out,” the Western Springs Republican said.
“What I witnessed last night, and over this past week with the maps and also the budget and how it was put together, making sure that rank and file members of the legislature on his side of the aisle were taken care of, it is right out of the 65th and Pulaski playbook,” Durkin said at a Tuesday news conference.
That intersection is home to Madigan’s 13th Ward political and former legislative district headquarters.
Asked how his relationship with Welch compares to Madigan, Durkin said “all you have to do is look at the map.”
“Pardon my French — Republicans were screwed on the map,” Durkin said. “Illinois citizens were led down a road of ‘good government, transparency, and we’re going to get out of the business of drawing maps, we’re going to be fair.’
“They did just the opposite.”
In January, Durkin told the Sun-Times he’d already spoken with Welch twice in the Democrat’s first 10 full days in the top leadership post and the new speaker also expressed an interest in “meeting on a regular basis for a cup of coffee or breakfast.”
Neither were talking about shared breakfasts this week.
But Welch said Wednesday that he thinks he did a “pretty good job of demonstrating my willingness to work with those on the other side of the aisle.”
As for the maps, he said Republicans pushed away from the table and “chose” not to put out their own proposal.
After some time off, Welch said he plans to return to Springfield for a special session to handle the energy bill and other unfinished business, plan for the fall veto session and raise money for the 2022 elections.
“This was a great start, a great beginning,” Welch said. “[I’m] looking forward to continuing the work.”