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Black Caucus Puts Welch Forth As Speaker Candidate; Williams And Kifowit Withdraw

Welch on the floor
Justin L. Fowler
The State Journal-Register
Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (left), D-Hillside, talks with Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, during the lame-duck session for the Illinois House of Representatives held Tuesday at the Bank of Springfield Center in Springfield.";s:

One day after state House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, announced a suspension – but not a withdrawal – of his campaign for another term as speaker, a state representative who has been accused of being a staunch Madigan protector has launched a bid for the post.

Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, has the backing of House Black Caucus members, a voting bloc that had previously supported Madigan’s reelection. Of the 22 House members of the Black Caucus, all but Maurice West, D-Rockford, had supported Madigan for another term.

But in a closed-door meeting of the Black Caucus Monday evening during a pause in floor debate of its massive legislative agenda, Welch was put forward as a candidate in the race that is not scheduled for an official public vote until Wednesday.

“I am honored to be called upon my colleagues from the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to put my name in for consideration,” Welch said in a Tuesday morning statement. “This historic moment in Illinois and across the country calls for new representation and unity of democratic beliefs. 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.”

Despite Madigan’s campaign suspension, Steve Brown, a Madigan spokesperson, said in an email Tuesday morning that Madigan “has no plans to support another candidate. Announced or otherwise.”

Meanwhile, another declared candidate, Rep. Ann Williams, of Chicago announced her withdrawal Tuesday night, as the wrangling for votes continued on the House floor.

Welch has most recently been in the news as the chairman of a House committee launched by Republicans to investigate Madigan’s ties to Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest public utility which admitted in a bombshell court document in July to seeking to influence the speaker to pass favorable legislation to the company in exchange for jobs for Madigan’s associates.

Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing, but the House investigating committee sought to prove conduct unbecoming of a legislator, not to charge him with a crime.

Welch and two other Democrats on the committee voted to end the investigation after just three meetings in four months.

“It was our duty to conduct this investigation to support and try to rebuild the integrity and trust of the House of Representatives,” Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, the committee’s ranking GOP member said at the time. “But what we saw under the leadership of Chairman Welch was a process that sought not to hear from additional witnesses, sought not to have adequate number of hearings and sought to bring the committee to a conclusion before we had the information necessary to make a qualified judgment.”

But Welch contended Republicans, by calling the investigating committee, were engaging in a “power grab” and “political show” ahead of November elections in an attempt to weaken Madigan.

Now, the Hillside Democrat has been thrust into the spotlight as a leading challenger to Madigan’s decades of power.

Williams, who received 18 votes in an initial ballot taken Sunday night behind closed doors prior to Welch’s candidacy and Madigan’s suspension of his campaign, announced her withdrawal from the race Tuesday night. Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, D-Oswego, who received three votes in that ballot, also dropped out. She was the first candidate to challenge Madigan. 

“I couldn’t be more grateful for all those who encouraged and supported me along the way. I am proud of what we accomplished and the steps we took to begin a new chapter in the Illinois House. We made history,” Williams said in a statement Tuesday. “The House Democratic Caucus continues to debate the best path forward and I am confident that we will reach a decision together and get to work for the people of Illinois. I will continue to push for strong and independent women to lead - not just in the Illinois House, but at all levels of government.”

Neither a woman nor a person of color has ever served as speaker in Illinois.

The House speaker is chosen by members of the Illinois House of Representatives every two years. There will be 73 Democrats and 45 Republicans seated for the vote for a new speaker, and 60 votes are needed to gain the speakership.

Normally, votes for leadership are decided before they get to the House floor. And Madigan has, until now, had the votes locked up for his speakership in every election since 1983, except for a two-year period in the 1990s when Republicans took control of the chamber.

A speaker can be elected with either Republican or Democratic votes, but historically the majority party has unified behind a candidate.

Several news reports Tuesday evening pegged Welch at 50 votes for speaker in a Tuesday night ballot – one fewer than Madigan had when he announced his suspension. Several news reports had race newcomer Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, sitting at 15 votes, with eight voting present. Closed-door balloting was expected to continue late into Tuesday night.

Tuesday marked the final day of the 101st General Assembly, and the Black Caucus was working to pass several pieces of transformative legislation from health care reforms to economic equity measures and an overhaul of several criminal justice statutes in the state.

Action on those measures may continue into Wednesday morning prior to the seating of new and reelected lawmakers for the 102nd General Assembly, which was scheduled for noon Wednesday. Once new lawmakers are seated, they must name a speaker before action can continue.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.