SPRINGFIELD — New Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch repeated a saying several times Wednesday that certainly seemed to fit the moment.
“People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do,” the Hillside Democrat said just minutes after ending Michael J. Madigan’s nearly four-decade reign as the one powerful constant in Illinois government.
It was Welch’s way of asking people to give him a chance to prove himself.
Just starting his fifth term in the Legislature, while replacing someone who was first sworn into office a month before Welch was born, the new speaker indeed comes to office facing plenty of doubts, yet he will have every opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.
He faces doubts from Republicans that he will break from the partisan, heavy-handed example of his ally Madigan, doubts from women in both parties over past #metoo allegations and doubts from Democratic interest groups that he can look out for them as well as the outgoing speaker.
But the future starts now for Welch, a savvy politician whose rapid ascendance through the party ranks was no accident, but rather the result of shrewd relationship building.
A majority of Illinois voters have wanted a change from Madigan’s leadership but were frustrated at their inability to influence the contest. Now they finally get their chance.
Notably, Welch wasn’t one of them, but rather a Madigan defender to the end. He began his acceptance speech with a salute to his oft-maligned predecessor.
“The state will never be able to adequately thank Speaker Madigan for the job he has done,” said Welch, who recently torpedoed a Republican-led effort to use a special House investigative committee to follow up on matters raised by a federal investigation into Madigan’s dealings with Commonwealth Edison.
I certainly have my own share of doubts after Welch’s partisan effort to hamstring the committee’s investigation and use it for Madigan’s defense instead of for an impartial pursuit of the truth.
But I’ve also seen Welch in action enough in other settings to know he is a talented politician who could provide a clear upgrade over Madigan’s style of leadership.
Still, don’t be surprised if there’s an element of be-careful-what-you-wish-for in Welch’s first year at the helm.
For all his faults, Madigan was a steadying influence for state government in many respects. Welch will have to maneuver his way through the state’s thorny problems with a noisy caucus of 72 other Democrats nipping at his heels and 45 Republicans itching to trip him up.
Those who think Madigan will continue to call the shots in Springfield should be in for a surprise.
While Welch is a product of the Madigan school of politics, there’s no reason to think he will be the former speaker’s pawn once he settles into the job.
It would be helpful to Welch if Madigan, sworn in Wednesday for another term as state representative, would take his cue and retire in short order.
As long as Madigan is still in Springfield, that will make it more difficult for Welch to prove he’s carving his own path.
Madigan, not surprisingly, gave no indication about his intentions, but I thought it was telling that he seemed to go out of his way to make it Welch’s day. The Southwest Side Democrat made no speech, instead issuing a written statement passing the torch, and left quietly afterward, not bothering to talk to reporters.
It was also a good sign when Welch said he wants to create a 10-year term limit for the speaker’s job and promised to meet with fellow lawmakers who want to make rule changes to open up the legislative process that Madigan used to extend his control.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who said he lives five minutes from Welch and has known him for 30 years, welcomed the new speaker’s offer to work collaboratively with his GOP members, but seemed skeptical.
“Time will tell whether we are going to move from the past,” Durkin said, who earlier that day had clashed with Welch as Democrats rode roughshod over the Republican minority to pass legislation in the final hour of the lame-duck session.
Although Welch was on everyone’s short list of possible successors to Madigan, it wasn’t until the former speaker suspended his re-election campaign Monday that Welch emerged as the frontrunner.
The result is that he really hasn’t been publicly vetted in the way that he’s going to be in the coming days.
If Welch is to be taken at his word, he already knows the best way to deal with that: Do something good.