It’s been quite a whirlwind for the new Illinois Speaker of the House Chris Welch, as he’s received more than one thousand text messages from all over the country as well-wishers congratulate the state legislature’s first-ever Black Speaker.
“I got a call from the very first Black Speaker of the House ever, from California,” he said. “We talked forever.”
Welch, who took over the speakership from Rep. Michael Madigan this week, has been a lawmaker for only eight years, but in that time was appointed to serve or lead several key committees.
In the fall of 2019, Welch was selected to chair the Democratic-led Special Investigative Committee into Madigan and his connections to the ongoing ComEd bribery scheme investigation. Criminal complaints in the case, which have led to charges against at least four former lobbyists and executives with the utility company, linked Madigan to the investigation, prompting criticism from Republicans in Springfield.
Republicans have raised criticisms that Welch, in his capacity as chairman of the committee, shielded Madigan from testifying.
Even amid those criticisms, Welch and Republicans have both made public statements that they hope to work together in the new session of the legislature, and the new speaker has made it clear that he would like to make some changes to the way the speaker’s office operates. Unlike his predecessor, Welch is adept at social media and has Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, You Tube and even Tik Tock accounts.
Welch is even promising ethics reforms and in a dramatic reversal from Madigan, who held the position for more than 35 years, the new speaker has said he believes in term limits for the position.
Before he gets to any of that, however, his first order of business is announcing rules the Illinois House will live by, and Welch has made it clear he wants to offer a more collaborative approach by conferring with GOP members. He also promises a leadership team that will show the diversity of gender, race and geography.
Welch’s road to the top spot in the House was not a smooth one. In order to secure the votes needed to win the Speaker position, Welch first had to answer questions about his treatment of women. In 2002 he was arrested in Hillside — but not charged — when an ex-girlfriend filed a domestic violence complaint.
In another incident in 2010, Welch was sued civilly by a separate woman for harassment. That suit was also dropped.
Welch responded to concerns about the Hillsdale incident, saying that he would have “handled the situation differently.”
“Nothing happened that you should be concerned about,” he said. “I was not arrested and charged and would I handle a situation differently, where I don’t have to go to a police station and answer questions, absolutely.”
Before he left Springfield, Madigan offered some simple advice to his replacement: to “trust his instinct.”
Madigan was sworn in for a new term as representative in the 22nd District, but the former speaker did not stay to listen to Welch’s speech after his historic election, nor did he attend today’s House session. In addition to packing up his office, multiple sources tell NBC 5 that Madigan has already moved some of his personal belongings out of his longtime Springfield apartment.
There’s no word yet if Madigan will retain his post as State Chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, but should he step down, Welch says he has plenty on his plate and he’s not interested in that job.
While there are many priorities — from the state’s response to the ongoing coronavrius pandemic to finding solutions to the $1 billion budget hole — in these first 24 hours, Welch is soaking in the passing of the torch and can’t help but be a bit emotional.
“You’re trying to make me cry, it’s an awesome accomplishment,” he said.