SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois House Democrats threw their support Wednesday behind a Black lawmaker to take over as speaker, backing Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch to lead the chamber as Michael Madigan stepped aside from a job he'd held for most of the past four decades.
Madigan issued a statement conceding that the House needed new leadership after a morning Democratic caucus cast a majority of its votes for Welch, of the Chicago suburb of Hillside. Assuming he prevails in a floor vote as expected with his party controlling the House, he would be the first Black speaker in Illinois history.
House members had taken up nominations for speaker early Wednesday afternoon, with Welch getting the nomination along with the ceremonial nomination of the current minority leader, Republican Jim Durkin of Western Springs.
Welch emerged as the front-runner Monday after Madigan, who has been a lock in that caucus for 18 terms, wielded the gavel for 36 of the past 38 years. Madigan, the longest-serving legislative leader in modern U.S. history, failed in a Sunday test vote to get the 60 votes required to reclaim the gavel, largely because of a federal bribery investigation that’s implicated him.
“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, a lawmaker since 2013, has been part of Madigan's inner circle, serving as chairman of the powerful Executive Committee and 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.
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.