Madigan Ousted As Illinois Lawmakers Select First Black Speaker

A new era in Illinois government begins with the selection of Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, ending Madigan’s record-setting reign.

Speaker Michael Madigan is congratulated during the Illinois House of Representatives inauguration ceremony in 2013. On Wednesday, Democrats selected a new speaker, Rep. Emanuel 'Chris' Welch. (University of Illinois Springfield/Creative Commons 2.0)

State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch took the gavel as head of the Illinois House on Wednesday, becoming the first Black speaker in state history and ending scandal-scarred Michael Madigan’s decades-long tenure as top lawmaker.

Madigan was the longest-serving statehouse speaker in U.S. history and amassed singular influence on politics and government throughout Chicago and Illinois. But he suffered massive political damage last July after federal charges against utility giant Commonwealth Edison singled him out as “Public Official A” in an alleged corruption scheme.

The filing, in which ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine and cooperate in an ongoing federal corruption probe, sent political shockwaves across Illinois. It alleged a “years-long bribery scheme” in which ComEd steered contracts, jobs and payments to Madigan allies and followed scores of revelations that have touched politicians from nearly every corner of the state.

Welch, 49, of Hillside is a Madigan protégé. Last fall, he blocked efforts by Republican members of a House investigative committee to call Madigan to testify about his role in the alleged scheme. His path to the speakership emerged after 19 Democrats vowed to oppose re-electing Madigan as speaker, culminating in Madigan’s decision on Monday to suspend his bid for the job.

In Welch’s initial press conference as speaker, he said he opposed gerrymandered political maps and supported term limits on legislative leaders. Both stances differ from the record Madigan built while serving as speaker for all but two years since 1983.

A half-century in politics

Madigan, 78, has not been charged with a crime and says he has done nothing wrong. He remains chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party and continues to control millions of dollars in campaign funds.

Over a half-century in politics, Madigan rose to the pinnacle of power. A product of Chicago’s 13th Ward Democratic Organization, he has been a House member since 1971. Voters in the state’s 22nd legislative district sent Madigan back to the House in November despite the ongoing corruption investigation.

Madigan’s vast influence in state and city government is well documented, including his practice of securing private and public jobs for members of his political army and other loyalists.

The court filings last July said ComEd and others close to Madigan worked to influence the longtime speaker as part of a corrupt scheme for favorable legislation.

Federal authorities charged longtime Madigan political ally and lobbyist Michael McClain, former Exelon chief executive Anne Pramaggiore, the utility’s lobbyist John Hooker, and Jay Doherty, a lobbyist and the former head of the City Club of Chicago, an influential civic group.

In November, Pramaggiore, Hooker, Doherty and McClain were all charged with bribery conspiracy, bribery and willfully falsifying ComEd books in connection with the scheme. They have denied the charges.

The charges came more than a year after the Better Government Association and WBEZ first reported ComEd’s involvement in the sweeping corruption probe after federal agents in May of 2019 raided the homes and businesses of ComEd lobbyists as well as politicians with ties to Madigan, seeking records tied to the speaker.

After federal agents raided the homes of McClain and retired Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, sources told the BGA and WBEZ that part of the probe centered on efforts to get work for Zalewski at ComEd and interactions between Madigan, Zalewski and McClain.

‘Public Official A’

According to the July court filings, ComEd “corruptly” awarded jobs with the utility, as well as contracts and cash payments over the past decade, to “exercise control over what measures were called for a vote” before the Illinois House, which has largely been controlled by Madigan for decades.

Madigan was not identified by name in court papers and is instead referred to as “Public Official A.” But the references to him are clear since the documents refer to that public official as the House speaker.

The last major Illinois politician to receive the “Public Official A” designation by federal corruption prosecutors was former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who recently was released from federal prison after President Donald Trump commuted Blagojevich’s prison sentence on corruption charges.

Late in 2019, the BGA and WBEZ also reported ComEd continued to pay McClain $361,000 for work even after McClain had announced he retired from his job as a ComEd lobbyist.

The corruption investigation hung over Madigan throughout 2020. After a truncated spring legislative session, the House abandoned its fall veto session and did not return to work until a brief lame-duck session that began Jan. 8.

By then, weeks had passed since the 19 House Democrats announced they would not back Madigan for a new term as speaker, leaving him short of the 60 votes required to win the job. Madigan suspended his bid after receiving 51 votes in the first round of balloting on Sunday evening.

On Tuesday, the House Black Caucus rallied behind Welch. Democratic representatives who had initially challenged Madigan for speaker, including Kathleen Willis of Addison, Ann Williams of Chicago’s North Side and Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, soon dropped out. Rep. Jay Hoffman of Downstate Swansea, whose support peaked at 15 votes in balloting late Tuesday, dropped his bid Wednesday after Welch promised him a leadership role. Welch won the speakership with 70 votes.