Illinois Democrats ousted former Speaker Michael Madigan after his nearly four decades in office when Emmanuel “Chris” Welch was elected the state’s first Black speaker of the House. Welch is tasked with bringing the House into a “new era” despite questions of his past including several harassment allegations.
The end of Madigan’s role as speaker comes after sexual harassment allegations against him in 2018 and a federal bribery scandal involving Commonwealth Edison last year. Though Madigan has not been charged in the scheme, Michael McClain, his top political confidant, was charged along with three others for furthering the scheme in a 50-page indictment charge on Nov. 18.
Craig Sautter, a faculty teacher at DePaul who has created radio and television campaigns for political candidates, says that people in power, such as Madigan, tend to “overstay their best days.”
“These folks are very good at what they do, but time rushes on. They think they are indispensable,” Sautter said. “But everyone can be replaced.”
Welch ultimately won 70 votes in the 118-member Democratic-controlled House, 10 more than he needed to win. In his acceptance speech, Welch urged unity amidst a sharply divided political landscape.
“Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats and Republicans because I want to talk about us being united. We’re going to work together to move this state forward,” Welch said.
Among Welch’s promises for change, several reports of previous sexual harassment allegations came out, raising questions of the state representative’s treatment of women.
A 2002 police report indicates that officers were called to Welch’s home where an ex-girlfriend told them Welch had slammed her head into a kitchen countertop numerous times. The woman did not press charges after speaking with one of Welch’s relatives, the report states.
Welch also faced a 2010 federal lawsuit for sexual harassment and retaliation charges after another woman said she lost her job at Proviso Township High School District because she broke up with him while he was president of the school board.
When asked about his past treatment of women, Welch claimed the former was an incident that happened nearly 20 years ago.
“People mature, they look back and would do things differently, handle situations differently,” Welch told the Chicago Tribune.
Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that the misconduct allegations did not seem to be enough to raise caution in his appointment to Speaker of the House.
“In the post-MeToo era, he still did not get vetoed or paused or anything else,” Mooney said. “I was surprised, kind of, because at least if there was any kind of concern they would have paused things a little bit.”
Though there have been calls to investigate the allegations, including by Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago, there was no significant effort to pause his appointment as a caucus leader.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, says there is a difficulty for Illinois politics to overcome the historically male-dominated, sexist foundations of the political field, especially amidst reports of sexual assault claims against Rep. Welch.
“While what you’ve got are some harassment allegations and a 19-year old domestic violence allegation… no charges were ultimately filed,” Redfield said. “That makes it obviously more difficult for Democrats to say this is a completely new day.”
Welch, a Madigan supporter, is now tasked with fulfilling his promises to take the chamber in a new direction. Among his first challenges will be to write the rules under which the chamber will function. Madigan rewrote the House rules in 1997 after the two years in which Republicans controlled the chamber, granting greater power to the majority party. This action will be among the first indications of how Welch plans to differ from Madigan.
Welch will also be responsible for picking the members in his leadership team, which he stated is important to be diverse. Diversity within the Democratic caucus will be essential when Welch is tasked with redrawing the state’s political boundaries to accommodate new population figures from the federal census.