Sworn into office in January, Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch said life has changed markedly since ascending to his new position.
Welch said during an interview on June 28, that he had to fend off 3,000 text messages that began as soon as people realized he was the front-runner for the position. Once sworn in, the calls came.
“I’ve gotten calls from Gov. Pritzker and Willie Brown, the first Black speaker of the California General Assembly and former mayor of San Francisco,” Welch said. “Nancy Pelosi called me out of the blue. I didn’t answer her call, because it was an unrecognized number.”
Welch said he didn’t imagine that on Jan. 8, while driving down to Springfield, he would be the new speaker less than a week later. His mind was set on helping re-elect Mike Madigan, the longest-serving leader of a state or federal legislative body in U.S. history.
But things began to snowball quickly when even Madigan himself realized that he wouldn’t get the required 60 votes to keep his job.
Welch said he was going through security at the Bank of Springfield Center, where the General Assembly had been meeting during the pandemic, and he saw another unrecognized number.
“I normally wouldn’t answer, but I did and it’s Speaker Madigan,” Welch said. “I asked him to hold for a second so I could put my bags down. He says, ‘I’m calling to let you know I’m suspending my campaign for speaker. I think it’s time to allow someone else an opportunity to get the 60 votes.’ And then he says, ‘Chris, do you want to be speaker?’”
Welch said Madigan gave him some advice. Secure the backing of the Illinois House Black Caucus and the Latino Caucus.
“And he goes, ‘I should’ve started here — call your wife,’” Welch recalled, adding that the moment was so overwhelming he could barely compose himself while on the phone with his better half.
“By the time I called ShawnTe, I was a mess,” he said.
What was the moment that really prompted him to realize the significance of what had happened?
“The time that it sunk in was on Martin Luther King Day,” Welch said. “I’m at home. I hadn’t slept in a week, so I finally got some sleep and I’m having breakfast with ShawnTe and the kids and my son Tyler says out of the blue, just out of the blue, ‘Daddy, when was Illinois founded?’ I said, ‘1818.’
“And I can see his face doing the calculation. He said, ‘That was over 200 years ago and you’re the first Black person to have your job?’ I said, ‘Yeah, son,’ and that’s what King was fighting for. For us to have those opportunities. I wish I had a photo of his face or a video at that point, because his face was what really hit me. He realized what a big moment it was for our family, for me, for the state. That’s what got me.”
Life’s changed for Welch personally, he said. In the hours and days following the Jan. 6 Insurrection in Washington, D.C., there was security assigned to protect his home 24/7.
“Here was my Black face on every newspaper cover in the state,” Welch said, explaining the heightened risk he and government officials around the country faced during that time.
But there’s a positive flip side to the exposure, he said.
“I’m the first Black speaker, but I definitely don’t want to be the last,” Welch said. “Now, Black kids across the state can say, ‘I can be that, because I can see that.’”
Within the last two years, west suburban Cook County, and Proviso Township in particular, has become ground zero for state government. Along with Welch, Oak Park Senator Don Harmon is senate president while Maywood Senator Kimberly Lightford is Senate Majority Leader.
“All roads lead to the west suburbs,” Welch said. He explained that having that kind of representation affords elected officials and mayors in Proviso Township and nearby suburbs significant leverage.
“When we were protesting last summer as a result of George Floyd’s murder, we were going around to communities saying we need to invest at least $1 billion in Black communities, now here I am Speaker of the House and in charge of the budget process in the House,” Welch said.
“I was proud of the budget the governor signed last week. In that $42 billion budget, there wasn’t $1 billion to Black communities, but $4.9 billion to Black communities,” he said.
Welch said he’s proud of the accomplishments that have happened during his first session as speaker, before naming what he said represented “just a small snippet” of wins.
“We got a balanced budget that led, for the first time in decades, not one, not two but three credit rating increases last week,” Welch said.
“Fitch moved us from negative to positive. S&P and Moody’s moved us from negative to stable. Those are huge goals,” he added. “To navigate us through a redistricting process that experts say is a model for true diversity, I’m proud of that. We got ethics reform done — that was a big thing, we’re going to try to rebuild trust in the legislature.”
Welch also lauded the passage of a state elections bill amid a time of national political turmoil.
“While Republicans across this country are passing laws to suppress voter participation we led the way for a law that expands voter participation,” he said.
And Welch said he’s also working to distinguish himself from his powerful predecessor in how he helps get House Democrats elected, offering a more robust apparatus of campaign and fundraising services.
On June 28, Welch was preparing to host the grand opening of the new headquarters for Democrats for the Illinois House, which is adjacent to his district office in Westchester. Welch said his government and political offices are deliberately separated to avoid any confusion.
“As speaker, I’m the leader of our Democratic Caucus and I wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our Democratic Caucus,” he said. “It’s my job to make sure Democrats get elected and re-elected to the Illinois House.”
Thanks to the office expansion, he’ll have space where his Democratic colleagues can make fundraising phone calls and calls for support, with Welch offering tips and advice along the way.
On the way out the door, he picked up a rubber wristband etched with what may be a working mantra.
“Better,” it said.