Welch discusses ascension to Speaker of the House post
by JASON MEREL
New House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7) introduced himself to Northwest Side residents at a virtual meeting of the 38th Ward Democrats on March 9 and discussed his political origins, the future of the General Assembly, and the phone call from Mike Madigan that “changed his life.”
The meet-and-greet with Welch was hosted by state Senator Robert Martwick (D-10), who is the 38th Ward committeeperson.
Martwick said he and Welch were sworn into the 98th General Assembly in January of 2013 and worked on many of the same bills during their tenure in the House, before he jumped the aisle to become a senator. Martwick said Welch took up education issues, access to reproductive healthcare for women, equal rights, environmental causes and labor causes.
Welch grew up in Maywood and his family later moved to Bellwood. He said he was involved in student government and interested in civics, history and social studies. But he said he always thought he would be someone behind the scenes.
Welch said that when he went down to Springfield the weekend before his Jan. 13 inauguration, he was not expecting to come home as Speaker of the Illinois House. He said he had been campaigning for Madigan, but when the former speaker ended up 9 votes short on Jan. 10 everyone adjourned for the day.
Welch said he was making his way through security to go to session Monday morning when he got a call from Madigan.
“He said, ‘I’m not withdrawing. I’m suspending my campaign to give someone else a chance to see if they can get the 60 votes,’” according to Welch.
He said Madigan asked him if he wanted to be speaker, told him his colleagues have a lot of admiration for him and that he thought he would do a good job in leadership.
Welch said Madigan then offered four tips.
“He said, ‘First, get the Black caucus together to unite behind your candidacy and get them together quickly, you don’t have a lot of time. And if you get the Black caucus, the next thing you can do is talk to the Latino caucus and see if they can join you and the Black caucus to support your candidacy. If you do that, I want you to go talk to Representative (Sue) Scherer and a couple of other reps in the downstate area. They may not support you but assure them that you’re going to be a representative and a speaker that always listens and you’re going to do your best to help them,” Welch said. “And then the fourth thing, and I probably should have started with the fourth thing, is call your wife, because if she doesn’t support this, then none of this matters in the first place.”
He won the election with 70 votes.
Welch made history by being the first speaker in 32 years who isn’t Madigan and also the first Black person in Illinois to be elected to the position. Martwick asked Welch how that would influence his approach to being speaker.
“This is so historical on so many different levels,” Welch said. “I mean, we’ve got to put this thing in perspective. Following Speaker Madigan, the longest-serving speaker in the country, in Illinois history, it’s historical. He served for 36 of the last 38 years as speaker. He’s served as a legislator for 50 years. He literally was sworn into office a month before I was born. Will we ever see a legislator serve 50 years ever again?”
Welch said the responsibilities of being speaker began immediately after his inauguration and “it was like drinking water from a fire hose.”
But he said that it wasn’t until his 8-year-old son asked him how long Illinois has been a state and he responded that it was established in 1818 that it sunk in.
“I could see his little face; he was calculating,” Welch said. “‘That was over 200 years ago and you’re the first Black person to hold your job?’ And I said, ‘Yeah son, I’m the first person in 200 years. First person to have this opportunity, and that’s what Dr. Martin Luther King was fighting for.’ And at that very moment you could see his face, and I wish I had a picture or video of it because it was priceless. When my little guy recognized what happened for his dad, that’s when it hit me.”
Martwick said he knew Welch to be a champion of a wide variety of progressive issues. “Ho
w does that change now that Representative Welch is now Speaker Welch?” Martwick asked.
“I think people have to understand the role,” Welch said. “I had to take two oaths that day. The first oath I took was because I was reelected representative of the 7th District. And I still represent these 108,000 people every day that I wake up, tie my shoes and go to work. They still have a voice in Springfield and I can never forget where I’ve come from. I still have to go to work and represent them. They haven’t lost a voice. I think their voice has been enhanced.”
“But I had to take a second oath that day, as speaker,” he continued. “And the speaker is the chief administrative officer of the chamber and also the leader of our party in the House. I have to be mindful also of what’s important to someone downstate, in Metro and Central Illinois, all across this state. Diversity is the strength of our state, it’s the strength of our caucus and as the speaker I have to recognize that it’s that diversity that’s made us strong. It’s that diversity that’s made us a supermajority. And so I have to make sure that we are sensitive to every single member’s concerns on issues and balance those issues each and every day.”