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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A new era in Illinois politics got underway Wednesday, as Michael Madigan gave up the speaker’s gavel he’s held for nearly four decades to Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-Hillside).

Welch becomes the first African American to ever hold the position after he was elected by the Democratic majority in the Illinois House.

“Today will be the last time I talk about us as Democrats and Republicans. We’re going to work together to move this state forward,” Welch said.

In selecting Welch, the Democrats rejected Madigan after he was their leader for 36 of the past 38 years. The door opened for Welch on Monday when Madigan announced he was suspending his campaign for a 19th term as speaker after he came nine votes short of gaining approval for the position.

Many questioned whether Madigan was making a shrewd play and betting that no one else could garner the votes needed. But Welch entered the contest and over the next two days he cleared the field.

A member of Madigan’s leadership, Welch gained attention as chair of the House Executive Committee where he showed loyalty to Madigan. Welch led the special committee investigating the ComEd scandal and ended the inquiry despite Republicans objections.

Welch is well liked among colleagues, but faced tough questions about his past treatment of women.

The Chicago Tribune reports, according to a 2002 police report officers were called to Welch’s home and an ex-girlfriend reported that he slammed her head into a kitchen countertop numerous times. The woman did not press charges.

Welch released a statement about the incident:

This verbal argument occurred nearly two decades ago. I will be honest that I have reconciled with the individual since that night. In fact, after our dispute we sought out the authorities ourselves. Their family lives in my district and are proud supporters of my public service and work.

“We have to recognize that one incident was over 20 years ago… 20 years ago was a long time ago,” he said.

Madigan has led the House almost continuously since 1983, but has been dogged recently by a Justice Department investigation into a bribery scheme involving utility ComEd. The 78-year-old Chicago Democrat has not been charged with a crime and has denied wrongdoing.

Madigan released the following statement Wednesday after Welch was elected:

“As I prepare to pass the Speaker’s gavel to a new generation of Democratic leadership, I want to thank the people of my district and the members of the House Democratic Caucus for the faith and trust they have placed in me over the years. I want to thank my staff for their hard work on behalf of every member of this caucus. It has been the honor of a lifetime to help bring people of different experiences and backgrounds together to serve our state.

“It is time for new leadership in the House. 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. And as I look at the large and diverse Democratic majority we have built—full of young leaders ready to continue moving our state forward, strong women and people of color, and members representing all parts of our state—I am confident Illinois remains in good hands.”

House Speaker Michael J. Madigan

Representative Jim Durkin was reelected leader of the House Republican minority. He celebrated Madigan losing the gavel. Durkin raised other concerns about Welch, including his close ties to Madigan.

“Mr. Welch had a lobbyist reach out to me, two lobbyist reach out to me in the last 24 hours about his ascension in the House of Representatives,” Durkin said. “It’s very sad that Chris Welch went out of his way to keep that hearing from being what we had hoped for – open, transparent.”

Members have long complained about Madigan’s rules, but while Welch did not talk about specific changes he’d make he said he’d like to see term limits for the speaker.

The new legislature will now begin its work as the state faces numerous challenges including Covid and a $3.9 billion budget shortfall.

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