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House GOP leader calls new speaker’s style and offer of talks over coffee ‘refreshing’ — and he’s not talking about the cup of joe

The conversations Republican Jim Durkin’s had with Democrat Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch leave Durkin hopeful that this General Assembly will be markedly different than those led by Mike Madigan, whose iron-fisted grip on the gavel earned him the nickname “The Velvet Hammer.”

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, left; House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, right.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, left; House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, right.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times; Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said he had already spoken with Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch twice in the Democrat’s first ten full days in the top leadership post — and the new speaker expressed an interest in “meeting on a regular basis for a cup of coffee or breakfast.”

“That didn’t happen with Mike Madigan,” Durkin told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Surprise.”

Durkin said “time will tell” if Welch holds to the promise of reaching across the aisle that the Hillside Democrat made in his speech just minutes after ascending to the powerful position leading the House two weeks ago.

But the conversations Durkin’s had with Welch since — and that they are even having conversations — leave the veteran Republican leader hopeful that this General Assembly will be markedly different than those led by Madigan, whose iron-fisted grip on the gavel earned him the nickname “The Velvet Hammer.”

“I will just say that I think that the relationship between myself and Speaker Welch and his predecessor is going to be a lot different,” Durkin said.

Durkin talked to the Chicago Sun-Times about the new speaker, the previous speaker and some of Durkin’s own priorities for the Legislature as leadership posts, committee assignments and the rules that govern the House’s procedures are worked out.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, left, talks with Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan during a session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in May.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, left, talks with Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan during a session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in May.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file.

“I think the fact that I’ve already talked to Speaker Welch within a few days of his being sworn in, and talking briefly about what he thinks and where we need to go and, more importantly, enlisting our thoughts on the composition of the House rules is something that, I think, is refreshing,” Durkin said.

Along with that conversation shortly after the swearing in ceremony, the Republican leader said he and Welch spoke last Saturday. That’s when Welch suggested the two — who live in nearby west suburban House districts — get together regularly for coffee or breakfast.

“And I said it would be great,” Durkin said.

The Western Springs Republican has been critical of Welch previously, calling him “Madigan 2.0” shortly before the Hillside Democrat garnered enough votes to be speaker earlier this month.

But the two have said they intend to work together and, Durkin said, so far their relationship is nothing like the one he had with Madigan.

Sometimes there would be “months upon months” before he’d hear from Madigan, Durkin said — a situation he doesn’t think Welch, or his leadership team will repeat.

“We’re both west suburban guys, we’re going to bump into each other in a lot of places,” Durkin said. “I talked to him last Saturday I said ‘how’s it feel drinking out of a firehose?’ and that’s what he’s doing right now, and that’s the only way you can describe his job. … I’m gonna let him do his thing, and he’s going to contact me when it’s important, but, right now, he’s got a lot of issues that he has to work through with his caucus so I’m going to give him his space.”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin in 2018.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin in 2018.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The General Assembly has its work cut out for it with a pandemic still raging and the state’s fiscal woes ballooning — and differences in opinion on how to deal with closing a nearly $4 billion budget gap for this year alone.

But “the intent and the spirit” that Durkin hears from Welch gives him hope.

Republicans have been on the wrong end of the House rules for years, which has meant that “many good ideas never see the light of day,” Durkin said.

He hopes to see rules that allow for proposed legislation that has bipartisan support to be automatically assigned to a substantive committee, receive a hearing and then move on to an up or down vote — to give the minority party’s ideas a “fair shake.”

“That’s all we want,” Durkin said. “If it fails, that’s not the point. We just want to be able to make our case and just be able to have a hearing and for us to discuss the merits and hopefully get a vote.”

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, listens during an extended session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in May.
Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, listens during an extended session of the Illinois House of Representatives at the Bank of Springfield Center in May.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

While Durkin spoke to the Sun-Times Wednesday, one of his lieutenants, state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, was meeting with House Majority Leader Greg Harris about suggestions for changes to the rules.

“I’ve never had that discussion with Mike Madigan or any of his designees in the past,” Durkin said. “So, I hope this is a sign of a new beginning.”

As for legislative priorities, Durkin said at some point legislators must take up pension reform, an issue that the state can’t “continue to ignore” — it’s about a quarter of the state’s budget.

Durkin also wants to see budget reform, namely living by a “revenue estimate,” a roadmap for budgeting that’s created by the state’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability that lays out revenues for the next fiscal year.

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

Property taxes is another issue that Durkin would like to see movement on legislatively.

“Our one major obstacle is now gone,” he said.

Not “having Madigan in the mix” is an opportunity to see if the state is ready to “move on from the ways of the past,” Durkin said.

“Illinois is ready for a change in leadership in the House of Representatives, so they’ll have it,” Durkin said. “I hope that Speaker Welch is able to live up to the statements that he’s made, and I have every reason to believe that he will. And we can get a better product, at the end of the day, for the taxpayers of Illinois.”