SPRINGFIELD — One year ago, a new era in Illinois politics began. Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch made history, becoming the first Black Speaker of the Illinois House, ending the state’s longest-serving politician Mike Madigan’s nearly 40-year reign.
The Democrat said he’s changed how business is conducted at the statehouse but Republicans say they’re still waiting for a new era of bipartisanship in Springfield to begin. Many in Springfield say the partisanship feels the same under the new Speaker, but there’s optimism that Democrats and Republicans can agree on anti-crime laws.
In a virtual sitdown with WGN News, the Democratic Speaker spoke about his first-year achievements and a look ahead.
“I think if you talk to folks in this space, they will tell you that it’s been a big difference,” Welch said. “First of all, my style is more collective and working with everyone in a team approach.”
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin views Welch’s first year differently. He says his party’s bills rarely see the light of day.
“The speaker, his predecessor at least, would give us a few bites at the apple and we’re just not getting there,” Durkin said.
“So you had more to eat as a party under Mike Madigan than Chris Welch?” WGN News asked.
“That’s correct,” Durkin answered.
Right now, Springfield is working with no watchdog investigating corruption. The Legislative Ethics Commission has disagreed on a replacement for Carol Pope, who decided to leave the job after claiming true ethics reform is not a priority in Springfield.
“Will you get involved to get the committee to find someone to take up that job?” WGN News asked.
“Well, I think me getting involved would still be a little bit premature,” Welch said. “They are going through a process. It’s my understanding that we should be hearing something in the next week or two.”
In response, Durkin says, “If we can’t police ourselves and have a proper inspector general overseeing the General Assembly, what that says about the priority of the ethics in state government is very damning.”
Following a violent year for Illinois cities including Chicago, Welch and Durkin say the legislature should pass new crime legislation.
“Crime is an issue. We want people who do the crime to pay the time,” Welch said. “There are some things we will likely be doing, particularly when it comes to funding of our police officers. There are some things we’ll probably be doing in the carjacking space in regard to the organized retail crime theft space.”
Durkin supports new retail theft legislation and he wants to repeal Illinois’ sweeping criminal justice law that reformed police accountability, pretrial detention, and sentencing.
“There’s language in those bills that’s very, very troubling from my perspective as a prosecutor, for victims and also for law enforcement,” Durkin said.
With Democrats controlling both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion, revisiting criminal justice reform is not likely.
Since this is an election year, the legislature aims to finish its work sometime in April. However, due to COVID, committees are working remotely.