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New Illinois House speaker pledges cross-party cooperation

New Illinois House speaker pledges cross-party cooperation

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SPRINGFIELD — Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch made history Wednesday by becoming the first Black person elected speaker of the Illinois House, succeeding Rep. Michael Madigan, the longest serving legislative leader in modern American history. 

The House came into session Wednesday afternoon to begin the 102nd General Assembly just moments after it adjourned a rare lame duck session that ended the 101st biennial session.

Speaking on the floor of the Bank of Springfield Center – where the House has been meeting to allow for social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic – the Hillside Democrat issued a call for unity, vowing that he would no longer refer to other House members as “Democrats” or “Republicans.”

“Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats or Republicans because I want to talk about us being united,” Welch said in his inaugural speech. “We’re going to work together to move this state forward.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker in a statement said: “Speaker Welch has a record of championing legislation that has improved the lives of hard working Illinoisans, and I have enjoyed working with him to move our state forward. As Governor, I believe strongly that it is incumbent upon me to work with the General Assembly’s leaders who are chosen by their caucuses, and I look forward to continuing to work with Speaker Welch on our shared agenda.” 

Welch was elected speaker by a vote of 70-44 over House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. And while Durkin opened his remarks by saying he was “extending an olive branch of cooperation, starting today,” he then launched a verbal polemic against Madigan, who is leaving the speaker’s office amid a cloud of corruption allegations.

“While his reign as speaker is all but over, his decades in power will never be erased,” Durkin said. “What we have here through this unique and rare opportunity is the ability to break from the past, to break that business model, because they are as apparent as the masks on our face.”


LISTEN: Rep. Chris Welch nominated as speaker of the Illinois House


Last summer, Durkin initiated the petition that forced the House to form a special investigating committee to probe Madigan’s role in a bribery scheme involving utility giant Commonwealth Edison and determine whether disciplinary actions should commence.

But it was Welch who chaired that committee and made sure it did not recommend disciplinary action.

Madigan, who on Monday announced he was suspending his bid to remain speaker, issued a statement Wednesday congratulating Welch as "speaker-elect" minutes before lawmakers were set to make the vote official.

“As I prepare to pass the speaker’s gavel to a new generation of Democratic leadership, I want to thank the people of my district and the members of the House Democratic Caucus for the faith and trust they have placed in me over the years," Madigan said in the statement. "I want to thank my staff for their hard work on behalf of every member of this caucus. It has been the honor of a lifetime to help bring people of different experiences and backgrounds together to serve our state.

Madigan had been speaker 36 of the past 38 years,  but a vote Sunday by members of the Democratic caucus signaled he lacked enough support to keep the gavel. He suspended his speaker campaign the next day.

Last summer, Madigan was identified in a Justice Department investigation as the beneficiary of a yearslong bribery venture involving ComEd. It has thus far yielded a $200 million fine on the utility giant, a ComEd executive’s guilty plea and indictments of four others, including Madigan’s closest confidante. Madigan has not been charged with a crime and has denied wrongdoing.

Welch has been part of Madigan's inner circle, serving as chairman of the powerful Executive Committee and was chosen last fall to be chairman of an investigative committee demanded by Republicans to review Madigan's involvement in the ComEd scandal. Welch abruptly brought the probe to a close, claiming that the Republicans had created a political show.

The 78-year-old Madigan has long been perceived as the most powerful politician in Illinois. Former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who tried to bring Madigan down, famously claimed that it was Madigan, not he, who was in charge.

Said Attorney General Kwame Raoul: “Members of the Illinois House of Representatives have passed the baton to a new generation of leadership, and I look forward to our work together to enact policies and reforms that protect and benefit all Illinois residents.”

The Associated Press contributed this report. 

PHOTOS: The career of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan

 

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