Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch in front of his district offices in Westchester. He has expanded his office complex since becoming Speaker. (Photo by Michael Romain)

The last thing on the mind of Emmanuel “Chris” Welch as he drove from his home in Hillside to Springfield on Friday, Jan. 8 was that he would make history as the first elected Black Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, just five days later.

“It didn’t hit me right away,” he told the Black pastors gathered on Zoom for the February PTMAN (Proviso Township Ministers Association Network) monthly meeting. “Things happened so fast.”

Following is the story in Welch’s own words of how he was transformed in just five hectic days from being representative of the 7th District, which includes Forest Park, to becoming Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.

“I was whipping votes for Speaker Madigan,” Welch, who had represented the 7th District since 2013, recalled, “along with every other member of the Black Caucus.”

When a vote was taken on Sunday, however, Madigan who had served as Speaker for 36 years fell nine votes short, and no one in the legislative body knew what would happen. The next day, a Monday, Welch said he was going through security at the Capitol when he got a call on his cellphone from Madigan.

“Chris,” said the voice on the other end, “I just wanted to give you a call to tell you that I am suspending my campaign for Speaker. Chris, do you want to be Speaker?”

Welch paused, not knowing how to take the question.

“The votes aren’t there,” Madigan continued, “and I want this House to be turned over to someone who I know will do a good job. I have watched you work and how your colleagues respond to you. I feel that you would be a really good Speaker, so I’ll ask you again. Do you want to be Speaker?”

This time the representative from Hillside had his wits about him and replied, “If there’s an opportunity, I’d be crazy not to want to want to make history, and I do believe I’d do a good job.”

Hearing Welch answer in the affirmative, Madigan gave him four tips, the first of which was to “call your wife because if she’s not on board, none of this matters.”

When he made the call, his wife knew something was up by the intense emotion in his voice. “What do you think of your husband being Speaker of the House?” he said and she responded, “I think you would be a fantastic Speaker of the House. You’ve prepared your whole life for this. You’d do a great job.”

The three other tips from Madigan were first, get the support of the Black Caucus; second, get the support of the Latino Caucus; and finally, “go talk to a couple of downstate legislators. They may not support you for whatever reason, but let them know that you will listen and be as helpful as possible.” 

By 10:30 that night Welch had all 22 votes in the Black Caucus. The next morning the Latino caucus promised 11 more votes, with the magic number being 60. After the first vote was taken later on Tuesday morning, the total had reached 50, with his closest competitor getting only 15. He spent the next 12-14 hours negotiating, and the result was a total of 70 the next day, putting the former president of the Proviso High Schools District 209 school board president over the top.

“Right after being sworn in,” the new Speaker recalled, “I remember eating a box lunch that tasted like a gourmet meal.”

Welch said that while his family was eating breakfast on Martin Luther King Day, his 8-year-old son asked him when Illinois became a state. When the boy heard that the date was 1818, he did the math and marveled that it had taken over 200 years for a Black person to become Speaker.

“The look on his face was priceless,” said Welch. “At that moment, it started to sink in. My son had never asked me to speak to his third grade class before, and all of a sudden I got invited.”

Welch listed the following as the “monumental tasks” that lie ahead:

Ethics Reform. Change the rules to limit the terms of the Speaker and the opposition to 10 years.

Budget. “For the first time in history, every one of our appropriations committees is chaired by a Black person except one, and that is chaired by a Latino.

Redistricting. “Any new map has to be reflective of our diversity because diversity is the strength of our state.” 

The new Speaker, a religious man, gave credit to both God and his own diligence by saying to the African-American clergy in PTMAN, “I want to give honor to God. Nothing is an accident. If you are prepared for your opportunity, when it comes you have to seize the moment. And the moment seized me. It wasn’t an accident.”

Tom Holmes writes a regular column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...