Campaign contributions to Welch’s wife raise question: Is Madigan era truly over?

Politicians who operate in ways that bring them personal benefit could end up on a slippery slope.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Is it a new day or the same old, same old?

Since he was elected Illinois House speaker last year, Emanuel “Chris” Welch has pledged to banish the self-interest, clout and corruption that has dominated our politics for decades.

But recent campaign contributions to Welch’s wife are raising questions about whether the bad old days of Michael Madigan are truly gone. Madigan stepped down as Illinois House speaker in January 2021. In March 2022, he was indicted on 22 counts of racketeering and bribery charges. Madigan maintains his innocence.

ShawnTe Raines-Welch, who is running for Cook County judge in the June 28 Democratic primary, “has received more than $200,000 from the campaign funds of current state lawmakers and from one retired lawmaker,” WTTW News reported last week.

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“House Speaker Welch personally asked some of the state representatives if they would donate to his wife’s campaign,” according to WTTW. “They delivered in a big way.”

For example, this year, the Raines-Welch campaign has reported contributions from Chicago-area Democratic House members that include state Rep. Greg Harris ($50,000), state Rep. Marcus Evans ($47,000) and $25,000 each from Reps. Elizabeth Hernandez, Jehan Gordon-Booth and Robyn Gabel.

The Raines-Welch campaign is building a broad and enthusiastic coalition of supporters, volunteers and donors, including elected officials, and is “deeply grateful” for their support, spokesman David Ormsby told WTTW.

On Friday, Welch was asked about the donations at an unrelated press conference.

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He has a right to support his wife and “best friend,” he responded. Welch noted she is running in the 4th Judicial Subcircuit. That area, which includes parts of Chicago’s south, west and northwest suburbs, “has never elected a Black person or a woman to the bench,” he said.

Raines-Welch is an attorney with 12 years of litigation experience. She has been rated qualified and/or recommended by numerous bar associations in Illinois, according to her campaign website.

The donors in question are longtime, personal friends who “know this exceptionally qualified Black woman,” Welch said. “And many of them have reached out and said, ‘How can we help?’ Voluntarily, have said, ‘How can we help?’”

He added, “Nothing that has been reported on in the last couple of days is unethical or illegal.” And instead of questioning the donations, people “really should be talking about an exceptionally qualified Black woman who can make history.”

There is tremendous power in the speakership — the ability and resources to reward and punish his colleagues with cash, people power and appointments.

These donors can be seen as helping a qualified woman of color contribute to the public good.

But they could also be viewed as trying to curry favor and get ahead with their powerful leader. That went on all day long in the Madigan era.

Welch has rightly and repeatedly pledged it is a new day in Illinois and that he is bringing strong ethics and transparency to the statehouse.

We surely need it. For decades, our politics and government have been buried under an avalanche of corruption.

In 2020, Chicago remained the most corrupt city in the nation, according to a new report from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Illinois comes in third among the 50 states.

In Chicago and Illinois, major political corruption cases continued to make headlines, while corruption convictions throughout the nation declined, the researchers found.

Chicago came in No. 1 for corruption for the third year in a row, according to the study, which analyzed public corruption convictions from the U.S. Justice Department.

“The sheer number and political stature of the Illinois elected officials and business leaders who were implicated, indicted or convicted in 2020 is staggering,” Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and the report’s lead researcher, said in a statement.

It’s food for caution. Politicians who operate in ways that bring them personal benefit could end up on that slippery slope.

Follow Laura Washington on Twitter @mediadervish

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