Note: Inauguration and the official vote for speaker can be watched live in the video player above beginning at 12 p.m.
The Illinois House of Representatives was poised Wednesday to elect its first new speaker in decades in a vote that will mark a seismic shift of power in Springfield, bringing the reign of longtime Speaker Michael Madigan to an end.
Democrats said Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, of Hillside, on Wednesday morning locked up the votes needed to take over the leadership role, which Madigan has held for all but two years since 1983, making him the longest serving statehouse speaker in U.S. history.
Welch was poised to earn more than the 60 votes needed in the official public vote scheduled to take place during inauguration on Wednesday afternoon. Once officially elected, Welch will be the first Black speaker of the Illinois House in state history.
Welch received 55 votes in an earlier closed-door meeting of the Democratic Caucus on Wednesday morning, with 17 voting present and one not voting. He garnered 50 votes in a vote Tuesday night, during which Rep. Jay Hoffman received 15 votes, while eight members did not cast a vote.
Democrats said Wednesday ahead of the inauguration that Welch, following that early morning vote, had reached the number of votes needed to take on the role.
Welch consolidated support after two candidates for the position withdrew from the race on Tuesday: Reps. Ann Williams and Stephanie Kifowit, who were among the first to announce their candidacies for the position, challenging Madigan before the powerful longtime leader suspended his reelection effort on Monday.
At least 60 votes are required to win the speakership, with Democrats holding 73 seats to Republicans' 45 in the House. 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.
Madigan suspended his campaign for the position Monday after he received 51 votes in the full Democratic caucus' first vote, falling short of the 60 needed. 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.”
Shortly thereafter, members of the Legislative Black Caucus backed Welch for speaker in a closed-door meeting of their own on Monday night. Welch, who has represented the 7th District since 2013, said Tuesday 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."
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.
Sources said Madigan on Tuesday night had already begun moving items from the desk he's held for nearly 40 years.
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 did not respond to questions on the allegation, but according to published reports at the time, Welch denied the incident. No charges were filed in the case. He also reportedly faced a civil lawsuit in 2010 for harassment and retaliation, according to the Chicago Tribune, a case that was dropped.
“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.”
Those allegations surfaced as several groups called for the House to elect its first woman speaker - though the only two remaining female candidates dropped out of the race on Tuesday.
Those two candidates were part of a total of 19 Democrats in the House who had previously announced that they would not support Madigan for another term in the position.
A majority of those 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 jockeyed for the speakership, Welch also faced 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.