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Illinois makes history, replaces longest-serving legislative leader in US

Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch replaces Michael Madigan as speaker
Credit: AP
Illinois state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, D-Chicago, left, talks with fellow state Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, D-Hillside, during the lame-duck session for the Illinois House of Representatives held at the Bank of Springfield Center, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Springfield, Ill. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill — The Illinois House on Wednesday elected its first Black speaker to replace the longest-serving legislative leader in modern U.S. history, picking Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch for the job and pushing aside Michael Madigan due to an ongoing bribery investigation.

Madigan had served as speaker for 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.

Welch, an eight-year House veteran from the Chicago suburb of Hillside, garnered 70 votes from the 118-member House. Had Madigan sought retention, Democrats who dominate the chamber might have been forced into a drawn-out leadership battle.

“It is time for new leadership in the House," Madigan said in a statement. “I wish all the best for Speaker-elect Welch as he begins a historic speakership. It is my sincere hope today that the caucus I leave to him and to all who will serve alongside him is stronger than when I began.”

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.

After decades of sharp partisanship in the House, Welch, who was derided Tuesday by the chamber's top Republican as a continuation of “the model of Madigan Inc.,” tried to bridge the gap in his first comments at the helm.

After recognizing both the GOP and Democrats, he said, “Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats or Republicans, because I want to talk about us being united. We're going to work together to move this state forward."

Madigan’s leadership has been questioned in recent years, even before the ComEd allegations surfaced. The scrutiny included his handling of sexual harassment allegations and a scathing report in which he commissioned that detailed the environment of bullying and intimidation in the speaker’s office under his chief of staff of 25 years.

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.

Madigan took over just as a constitutional amendment reduced the size of the House, creating single-member representative districts and consolidating power at the top. Madigan took advantage of that, setting the agenda, deciding what legislation would be debated, and, after 1998, deciding whom the party would support for office after he took over as chairman of the Democratic Party.