SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch is the first Black person to serve in the leadership role in Illinois. While that accomplishment is historic by itself, many feel his first session is one most lawmakers will never forget.
Welch says he quickly learned there’s no “typical day” for the Speaker of the House. But, Welch loves the role and the opportunity he has to improve life for Illinoisans.
The 50-year-old followed in the footsteps of former Speaker Mike Madigan who fell from power after 36 years in control of the House. We asked Welch on his first day in the role if he could separate himself from Madigan’s influence to have his own voice and vision.
The new Speaker explained he learned a lot from Madigan’s leadership. Although, Welch said he would distinguish himself.
“People may doubt what you say, Mike,” Welch said on January 13. “But, they believe what you do. You’re going to hear me say that a lot.”
I asked Welch to think back to that moment and what he accomplished so far.
“It’s extremely important to lead by your actions, not your words. You have to lead by your actions,” Welch explained. “I think the more you do that the more people believe in you and what you represent.”
Welch also said he believes in strong collaboration with others to get work done. The Speaker said everything on his priority list for this session got done. Proposals to improve access to healthcare, affordable housing, and voting rights are near the top of that list. A bipartisan ethics reform plan also passed out of both chambers, although Welch notes there’s more work to do.
“We were able to get a responsible balanced budget done on time, delivered,” Welch said. “We were able to get redistricting done on time, delivered.”
Republicans frequently said Welch didn’t bring a “new day” to Springfield because he only allowed the chamber to pass plans addressing Democratic priorities. However, Welch doesn’t buy into that argument.
“The work that we did is gonna help the state of Illinois – not any one particular district, not any one particular race of people. It’s gonna help all Illinoisans,” Welch added.
2021 is also the first time many people – lawmakers, reporters, and the public – walked into the Speaker’s office. While Welch kept some of the same decorations Madigan had on display, he did make some big changes. Just check out the Cubby blue on walls that once honored the Chicago White Sox, Madigan’s favorite team.
“I couldn’t keep any of that stuff. It’s been there for 36 years,” Welch laughed. “You know, I had to cover it up with some good stuff.”
Welch initially moved into the office to find no computer and a rotary phone. Clearly, some things needed updates since the olden days of Madigan.
The Speaker explained he only spoke with Madigan a few times shortly after starting in the role. I asked Welch what the Chicago Democrat would say about his successor’s first session.
“I think he’d say we did okay. You know, he didn’t say a lot of words,” Welch said. “You can do better, you did okay.”
Welch also explained he has long worn a wristband with a simple message – “Be Better.” The Speaker says he comes into work trying to do the best he can, but he thinks everyone can always be better.
“Will we be better next session? I think we will because we’re going to learn from what happened here,” Welch said. “We’re going to continue to build on that and try to be better.”
Arguments between lawmakers on separate sides of the aisle are common. But, members of Welch’s Democratic caucus had several heated disagreements on the House floor. Welch feels that shows the diversity of the caucus reflecting different races, religions, gender, ethnicities, and culture. He also noted his members have a diversity of thought, and that’s a good thing.
“When you govern from a big D democracy standpoint, you can’t stifle debate. You have to let debate take place. I’ve always said as long as that debate is professional and courteous, it should go forth,” Welch said. “We need civility and compassion in politics, but we also need debate. That’s extremely important. I think what you saw here was democracy on display.”