Former House Speaker Mike Madigan is now merely State Rep. Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) for the first time in nearly four decades as the embattled Democratic leader passed the gavel on to new Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) Wednesday.
Welch becomes Illinois’ first Black House speaker — a milestone celebrated by groups statewide in a tsunami of press releases issued Wednesday afternoon — but now must face the tasks of uniting a fractured House Democratic caucus and leading the House as Illinois faces a host of crises from the COVID-19 pandemic to a state budget hole that may be as large as $5 billion.
“For too long, the politics in this country have been far too divisive,” Welch said. “When is it enough? When do we put our politics aside and remember that we’re all human beings, and when we come here every day, we have to work together…I hope we can open a new chapter in this great state where we can work together.”
Madigan — who until Wednesday afternoon was the longest-serving legislative leader in the entire nation, including Congress — was intent on running for a 19th term in the role despite losing key support from a growing number of Illinois House Democrats in the last six months since federal prosecutors named Madigan “Public Official A” in a years-long bribery scheme perpetrated by electric utility Commonwealth Edison.
In a deferred prosecution agreement filed against ComEd in July, the feds lay out an alleged under-the-radar program where Madigan allies — working as lobbyists for the company — doled out contracts, jobs and internships at ComEd to those given Madigan’s blessing in an attempt to curry favor with the powerful House speaker. In the years in which the alleged scheme took place, ComEd saw two major pieces of beneficial legislation shepherded through the General Assembly.
Though Madigan has not been charged, Democrats ranging from anti-establishment progressives to suburban women lawmakers voiced their disgust, amplifying as more information about the scheme was made available this fall. Eventually high-profile elected officials like U.S. Senator Dick Durbin and Gov. JB Pritzker joined in, asking Madigan to at least step aside as Chair of the state’s Democratic party, citing his drag on candidates up and down the ballot, and issues like Pritzker’s failed graduated income tax in November.
Passing the baton
The transfer of power came as bleary-eyed legislators were sworn into the 102nd General Assembly after nearly pulling an all-nighter at the Bank of Springfield convention center in downtown Springfield, where the House has been meeting since Friday to minimize the risk of possible COVID-19 spread among members and staff. Before returning to Springfield, the legislature had not met for 230 days, having canceled their Fall Veto Session in November.
Before breaking legislative activity around 4:15 a.m. Wednesday morning — and after lawmakers returned to the makeshift House floor for the final votes of the 101st General Assembly’s Lame Duck session mid-morning, representatives were rushing to vote on a bevy of equity-focused bills pushed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. The bills, which fell under the four pillars of criminal justice reform, education, healthcare and economic opportunity, all ended up passing both the House and Senate, though many ideas originally proposed in the legislation were eliminated from the final bills after days of negotiation.
The Black Caucus has grown into a powerful force as a result of key alliances with Madigan over the years, and the now-former speaker has protected Black elected officials from Chicago City Hall to the General Assembly to Congress in the decennial legislative map-making process the year after a Census. That redistricting process will play out beginning this spring, and was one big reason the Black Caucus — except for one freshman member from Rockford — continued to back Madigan until he suspended his speaker campaign Monday.
Madigan nodded to that legacy in a final written statement Monday, though he chose not to make any final speech on the House floor. The septuagenarian said it was “the honor of a lifetime to help bring people of different experiences and backgrounds together” to serve Illinois.
“And as I look at the large and diverse Democratic majority we have built — full of young leaders ready to continue moving our state forward, strong women and people of color, and members representing all parts of our state — I am confident Illinois remains in good hands,” Madigan said in his statement.
Speaker Madigan vs. Speaker Welch
Welch readily admits he has a different leadership style than Madigan. Whereas Madigan, especially in recent years, was reclusive and loath to speak at any length either at public events or to media, Welch is gregarious and at times bombastic, unafraid to raise his voice in House floor or committee debate. On Wednesday, Welch pointed out the obvious, saying he had a Twitter account, while former Speaker Madigan — who famously doesn’t use email or a cell phone — doesn’t tweet.
Welch also said he wants to be “open and accessible” — two words that would not define Madigan.
One of Madigan’s defining features is also his longevity. Wednesday’s ceremony happened to fall on the 50th anniversary of Madigan first taking the oath of office in the House in 1971. Until Wednesday, Madigan had served as House speaker for all but two years since 1983, working with seven governors while in that role.
But Welch said he’ll take a different tact, noting his 50th birthday is next month — meaning Madigan has served the House for longer than he’s been alive.
“I think 10 years is an appropriate term limit,” Welch said in response to a reporter question about how long someone should serve as House speaker. “We could make it law. Let’s pass a bill.”
Welch is married with two young children, who neither of whom likely have any immediate political ambitions beyond student council. That contrasts to Madigan’s daughter Lisa Madigan, who served in the Illinois Senate and then as Illinois Attorney General. When it was coming time to make a decision about a widely rumored run for governor in 2014, however, Lisa Madigan announced in 2013 that she would not run for the state’s chief executive as long as her father remained speaker. Lisa Madigan retired from politics in 2019.
Madigan, a real estate tax attorney, has at times drawn ire for remaining a name partner at Madigan & Getzendanner — one of the biggest players in Chicago commercial property tax appeal law — while also overseeing legislation affecting property taxes. But Welch, a civil rights-focused partner at Chicago-based Ancel Glink, said he would “probably” separate from the firm.
Madigan earned the moniker “Velvet Hammer” for his quiet but forceful leadership style. Without having to lift a finger, the rules by which the Illinois House has been governed under Madigan has given the speaker power. On Wednesday, Welch said he’s open to changing the rules with input from legislators.
“I want to examine the rules and possibly make changes — possibly make a lot of changes,” Welch said. “I don’t know what those changes are, but I know there are conversations that are going to take place pretty quickly.”
Shoring up support
The House Black Caucus unanimously nominated Welch for speaker Monday evening after Madigan suspended his campaign, and fairly soon after the House’s Latinx Caucus joined that endorsement. Moderate Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) jumped into the race after Madigan’s announcement. In private test votes Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, Welch still fell short of the necessary 60 members he needed to become speaker, but Hoffman fell shorter.
But after more wrangling, Welch’s vote total soared to 69 in private caucus, turning into 70 on the House floor for the official vote — three short of the 73 Democrats in the caucus for the 102nd General Assembly. Rep. Jaime Andrade (D-Chicago) could not attend, as he is ill with COVID-19, and Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) voted “present,” while Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) did not vote.
Cassidy’s opposition stemmed from media reports re-upping a police report from 2002, which details an incident in which an ex-girlfriend of Welch’s told police that the future state representative “grabbed her hair with both hands while in the kitchen and proceeded to slam her head backwards several times on the countertop” after she called him “a loser” when going to retrieve belongings from Welch’s house after they had broken up.
The ex-girlfriend ultimately did not press charges. In a Tuesday statement, Welch characterized the incident as a “verbal argument” and said he and the woman had reconciled, and touted her family’s political support.
“I understand that the circumstances around this incident are troubling and I will, to the best of my ability, answer questions while respecting the other individual’s privacy,” Welch said in his statement.
Asked to explain further on Wednesday, Welch declined.
“I don’t think we really need to go beyond that statement,” Welch said. “I think my life’s work here in the legislature shows my respect of women and how I’ve treated women.”
In a statement, Cassidy said she voted present despite her belief Welch is “a good man” because she — as a domestic violence survivor and advocate — wants the allegations “vigorously reviewed.”
Cassidy pointed out the irony that the House would be coming out of the shadow of sexual harassment scandals involving staff in both Madigan’s office and political organization, only to possibly see another scandal if she felt the claims of domestic violence and two lawsuits claiming sexual harassment and retaliation were not properly vetted.
Welch and his supporters touted the new speaker’s consistent legislative support and leadership on women’s issues — including abortion rights — was a major reason to trust him, despite the police report and lawsuits.