The state of Illinois can boast of being the home of many well-known Black politicians who made history—Harold Washington (Chicago’s first Black mayor) current mayor Lori Lightfoot (the city’s first who is a Black woman and openly gay), and former President Barack Obama. On Wednesday, state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch ushered in another groundbreaking moment when he became the first Black Speaker of the House in the Illinois legislature.
“This historic moment in Illinois and across the country calls for new representation and unity of democratic beliefs,” Welch said in a statement about his new role.
Welch was elected speaker by the Democratic-led House after Illinois’ Legislative Black Caucus submitted his name for consideration as the man to replace former House Speaker Michael Madigan, who had held the post for 36 years (!!), according to AP.
Madigan finally relinquished his hold on the speakership because he is embroiled in a federal investigation related to allegations of corruption (something politicians from Illinois are unfortunately also known for). Though he has not been charged, the legal controversy spelled the beginning of his long-run as House Speaker.
Madigan’s supporters started pulling away last summer after he was implicated in a federal pay-to-play scheme involving Commonwealth Edison, a subsidiary of Exelon Corp. The public utility agreed to pay a $200 million fine and acknowledged it had tried to curry favor with Madigan by offering jobs and contracts to his allies in exchange for favorable legislation.
Like the old party bosses of the past, Madigan has wielded influence in all areas of state government, starting in Chicago, where his father was a Democratic precinct captain. Madigan got his start at a time when the political patronage system was humming and elected officials had power to dole out city jobs to loyal campaign workers.
It’s that kind of political assistance that is fueling the ComEd investigation today.
“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 of Welch’s election on Wednesday.
But the new House Speaker himself isn’t free from controversy. A Chicago Tribune report reveals that Welch has a string of domestic abuse and sexual harassment allegations in his past—though none of the accusations resulted in charges.
From the Chicago Tribune:
A 2002 police report indicates that officers in west suburban Hillside were called to Welch’s home, where an ex-girlfriend told them that Welch slammed her head into a kitchen countertop numerous times after she called him “a loser.” The woman did not press charges after talking it over with a relative of Welch’s, the report states.
Asked about his past treatment of women Wednesday, Welch described it as one “incident (that) was over 20 years ago.”
“People mature, they look back and would do things differently, handle situations differently,” said Welch, who didn’t directly answer a question about concerns Democratic women raised about the past allegations.
Welch also faced lawsuits in 2010 and 2011 from two different women who accused him of retaliating against them by targeting their jobs in the Proviso High Schools District in Illinois when they turned him down. The first woman alleged that she was fired from her position because she broke up with Welch, while the other said she was transferred from the school where she was a dean because she denied him a hug. Both women later dismissed their suits.
Welch blamed state Republicans for unearthing the past cases in a statement to the Tribune, but during his first speech as House Speaker on Wednesday signaled a desire for that oft-spoken of “unity” between the Republican and Democratic parties. Just a couple of years ago, former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled State Legislature were locked in a stalemate about how to handle the state’s considerable debts and expenses, leading to a 793-day budget impasse.
“Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats and Republicans, I want to talk about us as being united,” Welch said on Wednesday.
The Black Caucus also flexed its influence in the legislature this week by passing a criminal justice bill that will end cash bail in Illinois and require police officers there to wear body cameras.