Welch frontrunner for Illinois House speaker as scrutiny intensifies

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Democrats held another vote for Illinois House speaker Tuesday night, affirming that Representative Emanuel Chris Welch is the frontrunner after incumbent Michael Madigan suspended his campaign.

Welch got 50 votes and Jay Hoffman received 15. 60 votes are needed, leaving a way for Madigan to get back in the race.

There was a surprising twist in the race overnight as Welch, a member of current speaker Michael Madigan’s leadership team, was unanimously chosen as the candidate by the 22-member Black Caucus.

In a statement the caucus said: “We believe that in order to unite our state and party, we need to nominate a leader who will bridge the divide and seek solutions for our urgent issues.”

Democrats publicly are very quiet while Republicans are going on the attack.

Over the last 24 hours, as his candidacy rose, scrutiny intensified. 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 charged.

There was also a 2010 federal lawsuit for sexual harassment and retaliation – while he was a school board president, a different woman alleged she lost her job at a high school because she broke up with him. The matter was later dismissed.

But one of the women who shed light on Springfield’s culture of sexual harassment — Alaina Hampton – set her sights on Welch, Tweeting: “The next Speaker of the Illinois House should not have any “MeToo scandals.”

““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,” Welch said in a statement.

Welch led the special House committee investigating Madigan’s role in the ComEd scandal, so when asked about his candidacy, House GOP leader Jim Durkin unloaded on him for ending the inquiry. 

“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.”

It’s possible that other candidates emerge, but it’s not clear any one can get 60 votes.

Madigan is likely betting on that. He suspended his campaign Monday but left open the door to jumping back in.

While Democrats will try to sort this all out before the new legislature is sworn in Wednesday, Governor Pritzker said he’s staying out of it.

“As I have said many times, I will work with whoever the members of the House of Representatives elect as their speaker,” he said. “Choosing the speaker is the sole responsibility of those representatives and it is clear that the members take their choices seriously.”

On the legislative front, lawmakers sent Pritzker a bill to raise retirement benefits for Chicago firefighters. Worried about the cost, Mayor Lightfoot opposed the bill. 

Also headed to the governor is the Black Caucus’ education bill. The measure boosts early childhood education and access to early intervention services. It also places more students of color in advanced placement classes and raises the bar for high school graduation. 

And finally, the legislature approved a measure that could change the way the Chicago Teachers Union is able to bargain over school reopening and other matters.

Controversial police reform measures are still being discussed as lawmakers debated the Black Caucus’ sweeping overhaul. 

“We have watched a generation snuffed out for the most insignificant of reasons,” said Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Champaign). 

The Democratic bill would take police discipline out of union contracts and address qualified immunity which protects police officers from lawsuits. The bill also seeks to eliminate cash bail. 

“Eliminating qualified immunity which in this bill essentially creates a state cause of action is troubling. One of the main reasons is current legislation does not provide for any exemptions or defense even an honest mistake exemption,” said Rep. Patrick Windhorst (R-Harrisburg).

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