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New Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch ‘whirlwind’ rise was years in the making

His successful effort to succeed Speaker Michael Madigan was the result of thoughtful efforts to build relationships with other lawmakers and buff his profile as a leader.

New Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (right) thanks state Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, for his nominating speech. West is one of many young Black legislators Welch has mentored on his road to being elected speaker.
New Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (right) thanks state Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, for his nominating speech. West is one of many young Black legislators Welch has mentored on his road to being elected speaker.
AP

In 2016, Illinois lawmakers had a sticky problem that state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch stepped up to solve, marking him as an up-and-comer in Springfield.

Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger had cut off state pay to legislators because of the General Assembly’s budget impasse with Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Munger’s move was popular. Why should legislators get paid, went the argument, when payments to state vendors were past due because the Legislature “wasn’t doing its job?”

The pay stoppage also happened to be blatantly illegal. The executive branch of government can’t extort the personal pocketbooks of the legislative branch to get its way.

In stepped Welch. The Hillside Democrat, finishing only his second term, agreed to be the lead plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against the comptroller that restored legislators’ pay.

By taking the heat for them, Welch earned the appreciation of his fellow legislators, Democrats and Republicans.

As Michael J. Madigan proved over a nearly four-decade career as House speaker, the speakership doesn’t depend on popularity with the public but on the speaker’s standing among his members.

On the surface, Welch put together a successful bid to succeed Madigan as speaker in what he called a “whirlwind 48 hours” — the time from Madigan’s suspending his re-election campaign Monday to Welch finding the last of the necessary 60 votes on Wednesday.

But Welch’s ascendance was years in the making — the result of thoughtful efforts to build relationships with other lawmakers while enhancing his profile as a leader.

Nominating Welch for speaker, state Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, told how Welch had taken him under his wing after he won a primary in 2018. Welch called out of the blue, West said, and asked to come to Rockford to get to know him.

Over fried chicken, Welch answered all of West’s questions about what to expect in his new job and even suggested a tailor to make West a suit to better look the part.

In Springfield, Welch continued to mentor West, who learned Welch similarly was guiding other young African American legislators.

The House Black Caucus ended up supporting Welch unanimously. Just a year ago, a rift in the Senate Black Caucus prevented Welch’s own state senator, Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, from becoming Senate president.

Recently, Welch again proved himself to House Democrats by derailing a special House Investigative Committee that GOP members had sought to discipline Madigan. Republicans wanted to investigate issues raised by Commonwealth Edison’s admissions regarding the company’s efforts to illegally influence the speaker. Welch ran out the clock on the Republican effort, then shut it down.

If nothing else, Welch should have handled it with more finesse. Republicans had legitimate reasons to demand an inquiry, even if they were trying to score political points.

But from the viewpoint of House Democrats, Welch had proven his loyalty by taking a hit for the team, as Madigan so often had.

In the end, Madigan’s unpopularity beyond the Capitol proved his undoing when enough of his members came to see him as a liability to their own futures. Welch must absorb that lesson, too.

There were other signs Welch was somebody to watch.

He took a leading role in 2019 in getting Black and Latino legislators to work together to create the state’s Access to Justice Program, funding legal services for immigrants and for people who need help getting their criminal records expunged.

That paid off in the speaker contest when Welch, after gaining the support of the 22-member Black Caucus, persuaded the House’s nine Latino members to back him — putting him more than half way to 60.

Though Welch is a Madigan ally, some Madigan supporters backed Jay Hoffman, the Southern Illinois legislator who mounted a late bid for speaker.

In classic Madigan fashion, some say the former speaker encouraged both men, each coming away with the impression he had Madigan’s support.

I’m not saying Welch was angling all along to become speaker, only that, when the opportunity came, he was best positioned to take advantage.