In the past year, the locus of power in the Illinois General Assembly has moved from the city of Chicago to the near west suburbs.
One year ago state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) was elected Senate president, replacing Chicagoan John Cullerton who resigned. Last week, State Rep. Chris Welch (D-Hillside) was selected to be speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, replacing longtime speaker Mike Madigan, who hails from the Southwest Side of Chicago.
Our area is also home to a couple other powerful Springfield politicians. State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D- Maywood) is the Senate majority leader and State Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D- Cicero) is the co-chair of the joint House-Senate Latinx Caucus.
Lightford represents River Forest and Forest Park while Hernandez represents communities southwest of Oak Park.
“It’s an interesting gradual evolution,” said Harmon. “The suburbs have had a growing power base within the General Assembly. More and more of our members are from the suburbs and have a suburban sensibility.
“I don’t think it should be overstated, but I think it’s worth appreciating that for the first time for as long as I can remember, there’s not a legislative leader from the city of Chicago. All four leaders are, in fact, from the suburbs.”
With House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-82nd) living in Western Springs, three of the four legislative leaders in the General Assembly hail from Cook County’s western suburbs.
“The western suburbs are particularly diverse,” Harmon said. “The experience that we gleaned working in our districts representing diverse interests translates into representing diverse caucuses.”
The change in leadership also has been generational. Harmon is 54 and Welch is 49. Madigan is 78 and Cullerton was 71 when Harmon assumed the role as Senate president.
“I think that the four legislative leaders and the governor are all either members of Generation X or at the oldest the tail end of the Baby Boom.” Harmon said. “It is a significant change. The leaders in their 70s have passed the torch to a group of us in our early 50s.”
Harmon said it was especially important that Welch is first Black speaker of the Illinois House.
“It’s enormously significant for our politics and our legislative agenda,” Harmon said. “And I look forward to working with Speaker Welch.”
Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins, who nearly derailed Welch’s legislative career before it even started — losing to Welch by just 34 votes in the 2012 Democratic primary — has long since patched up any differences.
“The state obviously has fiscal challenges, but I am looking forward to working with Speaker Welch on behalf of the village of Forest Park and I’m glad that the new House speaker is someone who knows our village really well and someone who I have a personal relationship with,” Hoskins said.
State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) also noted that Welch is from a nearby district.
“It’s strong day for our region, because we are going to have a west suburban speaker,” Zalewski said. “I think that he is going to do a really nice job of bridging the gap between the old and the new, and I’m excited to work under his tenure.”
Welch, who graduated from Proviso West High School, Northwestern and the John Marshall Law School, made his name in the rough and tumble world of Proviso politics.
He was elected to the Proviso Township High School District 209 school board in 2001 and became president of the school board in 2003. Welch remained as president of the school board until April 2013, a few months after he became a member of the General Assembly.
During his eight years in the General Assembly, Welch rose to chair the House’s powerful executive committee and the higher education committee. He sponsored legislation to require Illinois corporations to disclose the race and gender of their board members in attempt to promote greater diversity on corporate boards.
This past fall he also chaired a special investigatory committee that was supposed to look into former Madigan’s involvement with Commonwealth Edison, which has been the subject of a wide-ranging federal investigation that has resulted in the indictment of one of Madigan’s closest confidants.
Republicans accused Welch of shutting down the committee after hearing only one witness, while Welch accused the Republicans of merely playing politics.