Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the new and first African American speaker of the Illinois House, has a near-perfect voting record—Illinois-style.
He won his first state election—the 2012 Democratic primary for a house seat—with just under 40 percent of the vote. Since then, with one exception, he has prevailed in each primary and general election unopposed, taking 100 percent of the ballots.
The Hillside lawyer, 49, was a beneficiary of the recruiting, vote-getting and gerrymandering machine run statewide by former House Speaker Michael Madigan for nearly four decades before Welch helped decapitate it this week. The House’s Black Caucus, which includes Welch, was behind Madigan’s campaign for a record 19th term as speaker—that is, until it wasn’t.
As chair of a special Illinois House panel investigating Madigan’s role in the Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal, Welch late last year drew flak for declining to subpoena witnesses. Madigan has admitted no wrongdoing and hasn’t been charged, and the panel assigned no blame.
The proceedings nevertheless sufficed to trigger Madigan’s downfall and Welch’s succession.
“My impression is, that committee served its purposes for the Republicans,” says veteran Springfield observer Charles N. Wheeler III. Welch "did his best to stall and muddy the waters, but (Minority Leader Jim) Durkin got what he was looking for: the publicity going forward.”
Now, though, Republican legislators have lost the foil they had in Madigan for so many years.
Welch isn’t likely to retain the same tight-fisted control of the chamber as Madigan did over the last 15 years, with the ability to single-handedly derail bills and enrage Republicans. No one would. Wheeler, a former newspaper reporter and retired chief of the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois-Springfield, points to yesterday’s passage of a police reform bill that includes the eventual elimination of cash bail as a harbinger of a changed reality under Welch’s reign.
Welch mostly recently made news beyond his district, which stretches into west suburban River Forest and Forest Park, for opposition to the unexpected closing in 2019 of Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park. He was on the hospital’s board and accused its new owner, Pipeline Health, of deceiving the village and state during the acquisition process. (The hospital was reopened last year to treat COVID patients.)
Welch has chaired the executive and higher education committees in the House and pushed to diversify boards of publicly held corporations, sponsoring legislation to require Illinois firms to disclose board composition.
He has pushed for more racial diversity at financial institutions, Medicaid providers and university vendors. When the Big Ten flip-flopped last summer and approved a truncated football season amid the pandemic, Welch deemed the decision “unconscionable.”
At alma mater Proviso West High School, he served 12 years on the board, including two years as chairman—just the kind of grooming for higher office that the Madigan team looks for. He’s a graduate of Northwestern University and John Marshall Law School.
Welch has represented municipal and school clients, first at Sanchez Daniels and currently at Ancel Glick. On its website, he cites successful defenses for the city of Chicago, the town of Cicero and the city of Blue Island against allegations including excessive use of force, wrongful death and civil rights violations.
Welch’s wife, ShawnTe Raines, also is a partner at Ancel Glick, specializing in municipal law after handling plaintiffs’ injury clients.
The Chicago Tribune reported that police were called to Welch’s home in 2002 by an ex-girlfriend who alleged he repeatedly slammed her head into a kitchen countertop. She did not press charges, the newspaper reported, quoting him saying, “People mature, they look back and would do things differently, handle situations differently.”
Welch in a statement blamed Republicans for the matter now coming to light, the Tribune said: “At no other occasion have these events been brought up and I firmly believe my Republican colleagues are threatened by the potential growth of my profile.”
Welch’s office did not respond to inquiries from Crain’s.