The Legislative Black Caucus in the Illinois House of Representatives has backed a new candidate for speaker after longtime Speaker Michael Madigan suspended his campaign for the powerful post.
Sources said Monday that the caucus, in a closed-door meeting, had selected Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch to run for the role. Welch said in a statement Tuesday that he was "honored to be called upon" by his colleagues in the caucus.
"This historic moment in Illinois and across the country calls for new representation and unity of democratic beliefs," Welch said. "I want to thank Speaker Madigan for his leadership - it has been a challenging year for us all but I am grateful for his commitment to serving the public."
Madigan suspended his campaign for the position - which he's held for all but two years since 1983, making him the longest serving statehouse speaker in U.S. history - on Monday after he failed to reach the 60 votes needed in the full Democratic caucus' first vote. But he noted it was not a "withdrawal" from the race, potentially leaving the door open for him to reenter should other candidates not be able to garner 60 votes either.
“As I have said many times in the past, I have always put the best interest of the House Democratic Caucus and our members first," Madigan said. "The House Democratic Caucus can work to find someone, other than me, to get 60 votes for Speaker.”
Madigan received 51 votes in the closed door House Democratic Caucus meeting on Sunday. A total of 21 Democrats voted for other candidates: 18 for Rep. Ann Williams and three for Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, while one voted present.
At least 60 votes are required to win the speakership and voting will continue until a speaker is chosen. No legislative action can be taken prior to the election of the speaker, per House rules, meaning a lawmaker must reach 60 votes to assume the leadership role before the session can begin, bills can be introduced or any action can be taken.
It's not clear if Welch, a Democrat from Hillside who has represented the 7th District since 2013, will be able to garner enough support to reach 60 votes.
Questions did surface about Welch as his candidacy ascended - some related to his treatment of women. A 2002 Hillside police report says a woman described as Welch's ex-girlfriend told investigators he "grabbed her hair with both hands... and proceeded to slam her head backwards several times on the counter top.”
Welch has not responded to questions on the allegation, but according to published reports at the time, Welch denied the incident.
“It is something that we should always pay attention to when these types of things come up,” State Rep. Kam Buckner, chairman of the Black Caucus, said. “It’s something that I personally have had conversations with him about and he has done enough to assuage my fears and the fears of many of my colleagues, specifically my female colleagues. I think that he will be able to speak for himself in this matter.”
A total of 19 Democrats in the House had previously announced that they would not support Madigan for another term in the position, two of which are running for speaker themselves. That coalition did not immediately respond to a request Tuesday on the members' stances on Welch's candidacy.
There are 22 members of the Black Caucus, one of whom was part of the group of 19 Democrats who initially publicly said they would not back Madigan.
The Black Caucus members had previously announced their support for Madigan for another term, saying in December that the group felt Madigan - before he suspended his reelection effort - could help "deliver" on their priorities as the embattled lawmaker faced an uphill battle to retain his post.
"After analysis, we believe our caucus is in a more advantageous position under the leadership of Speaker Madigan to deliver on our priorities," the caucus said in a statement after holding a forum for Madigan and one other candidate for speaker to make their case for why they should receive the caucus' support.
A lawmaker who attended that forum said Madigan focused on two points in addressing members: that he was the person best suited to handle redistricting, scheduled to take place this year following the 2020 census, and that he plans to work with Gov. J.B. Pritzker on fixing the state's budget woes - noting that if the governor asks for a tax increase following the failure of the state's graduated income tax proposal, Madigan would work to help pass it.
"We have a daunting task ahead of us to repair harm done to black communities because of long standing systemic disinvestment, the challenges stemming from COVID-19 and of course the underlying reasons why it is important to pass the Black Caucus’ Policy Agenda: Criminal Justice & Police Reform; Education & Workforce Development; Economic Access; and Access to Health Care," the statement continued.
"The members of the House Illinois Legislative Black Caucus have taken a Caucus position in support of Representative Mike Madigan as Speaker for the next General Assembly. We need a Speaker that will provide strong, consistent leadership and support for the challenges ahead," the caucus said, adding, "It’s time to refocus on the work in front of us and be prepared to start the next General Assembly’s business immediately."
A majority of the 19 members of Madigan's caucus who publicly came out against his reelection effort did so in November after two former ComEd executives and two consultants, one a longtime Madigan associate and confidant, were indicted on multiple federal charges related to the alleged scheme to influence Madigan - identified in the indictment as "Public Official A" - in exchange for legislation favorable to the utility giant, prosecutors say.
Those charges came months after federal prosecutors filed a deferred prosecution agreement with ComEd in which investigators revealed that the utility company agreed to pay $200 million dollars in fines and admitted to arranging jobs and payments for associates of an elected official, referred to only as “Public Official A," from 2011 to 2019 to curry favor with the official.
Madigan has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing and has repeatedly denied the allegations laid out by prosecutors, saying in part that if the conspiracy to influence him did occur, "it was never made known" to him and if it had been, it "would have been profoundly unwelcome."
As he jockeys for the speakership, Welch may face scrutiny for his role on a special House committee convened in August to investigate Madigan and the ComEd allegations. Welch chaired that panel, which voted in December down partisan lines to close its proceedings without discipline for Madigan.
In its final meeting, Welch said the proceedings of the committee, convened via request from the House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, were in part "a sham show trial" for Durkin to attempt to grab power from Madigan, who Durkin has long assailed.
It's unclear if any of the 19 Democratic members of the Illinois House who initially opposed Madigan's reelection effort may back Welch. In a joint statement released Sunday, they said their stances hadn't moved toward Madigan, proclaiming that it’s time for “new leadership” in the position.
“After meeting the past two days in Springfield, and having had the opportunity to participate in multiple candidate forums in the speaker’s election, our position has not changed,” the group of lawmakers said in a statement. “We will not be supporting Michael J. Madigan for Speaker of the Illinois House at any stage of the voting process. It is time for new Democratic leadership in the Illinois House.”