When Emanuel “Chris” Welch was a student at Proviso West High School in the late 1980s his classmates liked him and were impressed by him. He was known as a good athlete, a smooth talker, and was class president all four years in high school. Classmates expected him to go far.
“He was very friendly, but he was driven,” said Harlin Neal, a high school friend and classmate. Neal first got to know Welch at Roosevelt Junior High School in Bellwood and was a fellow member of the Proviso West Class of 1989. “You knew that there was something about him. You knew that in the future he was going to do well. In fact, he was voted Most Likely to Succeed in our class, but obviously none of us imagined that he would be replacing Mike Madigan, you know, as the Illinois Speaker of the House.”
Wednesday Welch, 49, did just that succeeding Madigan who had been speaker for 36 of the last 38 years and was the longest serving leader of a legislative chamber in the nation.
Welch who represents the 7th House District which includes Forest Park, River Forest, Maywood, Bellwood, Hillside, and Westchester, is the first Black Speaker of the House in Illinois history.
“It sends a message,” said State Rep LaShawn Ford (D-8th District) who held the Bible for Welch Wednesday when Welch was sworn in at the Bank of Springfield Center on Wednesday. “Chris Welch being the first Black speaker of the House from Illinois is a strong message for the nation. I mean it’s unbelievable.”
State Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-23st) agreed that selecting Welch as speaker was transformational.
“It really was a global moment for either a Black or woman speaker,” Zalewski said. “It just was. I was in the room for four days and I know what was being expressed and there needed to be a clean break.”
Welch was selected as speaker after Madigan couldn’t get the required 60 votes when 19 members of the House Democratic caucus refused to support him. Welch, a Madigan loyalist, parlayed support from the Black Caucus and then received the endorsement of the Latinix Caucus to emerge victorious after multiple ballots and Madigan’s withdrawal from the race after getting only 51 votes Sunday in the first round of voting among Democratic House members who met behind closed doors.
Zalewski, who had committed to vote for Madigan on the first round of voting, declined to say how he voted in subsequent rounds.
“We sort of committed to internal discussions being internal,” Zalewski said. “I will say I voted for Speaker Welch on the final ballot and then I voted for him publicly on the House floor.”
Ford said Welch is the right person for the job and the times.
“He’s definitely by far the greatest choice,” Ford said. “I mean he’s super qualified. He definitely has a passion for this, I would say, way of life. Chris Welch, one, loves politics, he loves Illinois, he loves the government, and he understands it and he’s a hard worker and all of that is what it takes to be the Speaker of the House.”
Ford said that Madigan’s time had passed.
“The time changed and Madigan’s time had come and gone,” Ford said.
The House Black Caucus had backed Madigan until he suspended his campaign. Then Welch and the Black Caucus made their move.
“Our loyalty to the work that Madigan has done over the years, the Black Caucus that is, it ultimately in the end, like we knew, would pay off,” Ford said. “We picked the speaker of the House. People really didn’t understand what was happening in the caucus but we knew what was happening. And you can’t talk about everything all the time because you break the loyalty.”
Welch said in a televised interview that he didn’t seek the job.
“I didn’t sign up to be speaker,” Welch said. “I didn’t seek this job out. It kind of found me.”
Welch was first elected to the House in 2012. In the 2012 Democratic primary he edged out Rory Hoskins, who is now the first Black mayor of Forest Park, by just 34 votes. Despite the close and tough race Hoskins and Welch now have a good relationship.
“I was very happy to hear the news that the House has chosen our state representative, Chris Welch, to be the new speaker for the 102nd General Assembly,” Hoskins said. “And on a personal level I’ve gotten to know Speaker Welch better over the years. He was one of the first elected officials that I sat down and had breakfast with after I had been elected mayor of Forest Park. Despite the fact that we once competed for the same position he’d always been great for the village. He returns calls very quickly, if he says he’s going to do something he does it. He’s certainly been helpful to the village since I’ve become mayor so we’re just jumping and doing cartwheels over here for Chris Welch.”
In 2006 the always ambitious Welch, then the president of the Proviso High School District 209 Board of Education, tried to unseat then state representative, now Cook County Clerk, Karen Yarbrough in the Democratic primary. Yarbrough beat Welch badly winning 73 percent of the vote.
“He realized that at that time that he had to make peace and allow for those who came before him to be who they were and take a step back and wait his turn,” Ford said.
Yesterday Yarbrough issued a statement congratulating Welch.
But not everyone is praising Welch. Michael Manzo, a Republican who is a village trustee in Oak Brook who briefly served with, and clashed with, Welch on the District 209 school board, said that selecting Welch as speaker will not change Illinois politics.
“This isn’t a change, this is just Michael Madigan working through Chris Welch to control the state so for anybody who thinks there was a change made they’re very naïve to Illinois politics,” said Manzo served as Tony Peraica’s chief of staff when Peraica served on the Cook County Board.
Welch served on the District 209 school board for 11 years, from 2001 until 2012, most of that time as president. During that time Welch was often a subject of controversy amidst allegations of patronage hiring, staff turnover, and lawsuits. For several years a state financial oversight board was appointed to oversee the district’s finances. But House members were not dissuaded by those issues or a Hillside police report from 2002 in which a former girlfriend accused Welch of trying to assault her. Welch was briefly taken into custody and read his Miranda rights but ultimately the woman declined to press charges.
In a televised interview after becoming speaker Welch said that he had matured since then and noted that he has a strong record on women’s issues. House Democrats were apparently unfazed by these issues although one Democrat, Kelly Cassidy voted present because of concerns about the domestic violence allegations.
“You would expect that there always is going to be controversies when you are in the process of government, there’s always going to be a controversy, you’re going to make some people happy, you’re going to make some people sad and that’s human nature,” Ford said. “The good thing is what you don’t want are criminal charges. Differences are always going to be (there) but what we know is there has been no criminal charges against him and therefore we would expect there would to be controversy with him as the speaker and that’s just the way it is.”