When Emanuel “Chris” Welch was a student at Proviso West High School in the late 1980s, his classmates liked and were impressed by him. He was known as a good athlete, a smooth talker, and was class president all four years.
Classmates expected him to go far.
“He was very friendly, but he was driven,” said high school friend and classmate Harlin Neal, who first got to know Welch at Roosevelt Junior High School in Bellwood and was a fellow member of the Proviso West Class of 1989. “In fact, he was voted Most Likely to Succeed in our class, but obviously none of us imagined that he would be replacing Mike Madigan as the Illinois Speaker of the House.”
On Jan. 13, Welch, 49, did just that, succeeding Madigan who had been speaker for 36 of the last 38 years and was the longest serving leader of a legislative chamber in the nation.
Welch, who represents the 7th House District, which includes Forest Park, River Forest, Maywood, Bellwood, Hillside and Westchester, is the first Black Speaker of the House in Illinois history.
“It sends a message,” said state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) who held the Bible for Welch when he was sworn in at the Bank of Springfield Center on Wednesday. “Chris Welch being the first Black speaker of the House from Illinois is a strong message for the nation. I mean it’s unbelievable.”
Ford, a Chicago resident, represents North Riverside and part of Brookfield’s north end.
State Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-23rd), a Riverside resident whose district includes a good chunk of Brookfield, agreed that selecting Welch as speaker was transformational.
“It really was a global moment for a either Black or woman speaker,” Zalewski said. “It just was. I was in the room for four days and I know what was being expressed, and there needed to be a clean break.”
Welch was selected as speaker after Madigan couldn’t get the required votes after 19 members of the House Democratic Caucus refused to support him. Welch, a Madigan loyalist, parlayed support from the Black Caucus and then received the endorsement of the Latinx Caucus to emerge victorious after multiple ballots.
Madigan withdrew from the race after getting only 51 votes on Jan. 10 in the first ballot of voting among Democratic House members who met behind closed doors.
Zalewski, who had committed to vote for Madigan in the first round, declined to say how he voted in subsequent rounds.
“We sort of committed to internal discussions being internal,” Zalewski said. “I will say I voted for Speaker Welch on the final ballot, and then I voted for him publicly on the House floor.”
Ford said Welch is the right person for the job and the times.
“He’s definitely by far the greatest choice,” Ford said. “Chris Welch, one, loves politics, he loves Illinois, he loves the government, and he understands it.
“The time changed and Madigan’s time had come and gone.”
The House Black Caucus had backed Madigan until he suspended his campaign. Then Welch and the Black Caucus made their move.
“We picked the speaker of the House,” Ford said. “People really didn’t understand what was happening in the caucus, but we knew what was happening.”
Welch said in a televised interview that he didn’t seek the job.
“I didn’t sign up to be speaker,” Welch said. “I didn’t seek this job out. It kind of found me.”
Welch was first elected to the House in 2012, when he edged out Rory Hoskins, who is now the first Black mayor of Forest Park, by just 34 votes in the primary. Despite being one-time opponents, Hoskins and Welch now have a good relationship.
“I was very happy to hear the news that the House has chosen our state representative, Chris Welch, to be the new speaker for the 102nd General Assembly,” Hoskins said. “Despite the fact that we once competed for the same position, he’d always been great for the village. … He’s certainly been helpful to the village since I’ve become mayor, so we’re just jumping and doing cartwheels over here for Chris Welch.”
In 2006, the ambitious Welch, then the president of the Proviso High School District 209 Board of Education, had tried to unseat then state Rep. Karen Yarbrough in the Democratic primary. Yarbrough, who is now Cook County clerk, beat Welch badly, winning 73 percent of the vote.
“He realized that at that time that he had to make peace and allow for those who came before him to be who they were and take a step back and wait his turn,” Ford said.
Yesterday, Yarbrough issued a statement congratulating Welch.
But not everyone is praising Welch.
Michael Manzo, a Republican who is a village trustee in Oak Brook and who briefly served with — and clashed with — Welch on the District 209 school board, said selecting Welch as speaker will not change Illinois politics.
“This isn’t a change, this is just Michael Madigan working through Chris Welch to control the state,” said Manzo. “So, for anybody who thinks there was a change made they’re very naïve to Illinois politics.”
Welch served on the District 209 school board for 11 years, until 2012, most of that time as president. During that time, Welch was often a subject of controversy. He was accused of patronage hiring and was blamed for staff turnover and was party to lawsuits.
For a time, a state financial oversight board was appointed to oversee the school district’s finances.
But House members were not dissuaded by those issues or a 2002 Hillside police report from 2002 in which a former girlfriend accused Welch of assaulting her. Ultimately the woman declined to press charges.
In a televised interview after becoming speaker, Welch said he had matured since then and noted that he has a strong record on women’s issues. House Democrats were apparently unfazed by these issues although one Democrat, Kelly Cassidy, voted present because of the domestic violence allegations.
“There’s always going to be a controversy. You’re going to make some people happy, you’re going to make some people sad and that’s human nature,” Ford said. “Differences are always going to be [there] but what we know is there has been no criminal charges against him and, therefore, we would expect there would be controversy with him as the speaker, and that’s just the way it is.”