EYE ON ILLINOIS: As Welch takes gavel from Madigan, Dems still face crucial questions

Congratulations, you’re the new speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.

Now what?

Rep. Chris Welch has to be asking himself that question today. Moments into his fifth House term, the Hillside Democrat did what many thought was impossible. Although he didn’t run against Mike Madigan in a head-to-head ballot of the full House, Welch takes the gavel from a man who held it for all but two years since 1983.

The longest-running legislative leader in American history suspended his re-election campaign late Monday, so while the formal record will show a seamless transition of power, observers know this is the result of significant political maneuvering, closed-door negotiations and caucus controversy. I suspect there were more than a few bitten tongues along this rocky road, but the new day has arrived.

Republicans didn’t wait for the formality before attacking Welch on multiple fronts. They called him a hand-picked Madigan successor. They don’t care for how he argued in favor of past income tax increases. They pointedly skewered his work as chairman of the ultimately fruitless House Special Investigating Committee convened to examine Madigan’s role in a Commonwealth Edison bribery scandal. And they weren’t shy about revisiting reports that call into question Welch’s treatment of women in his personal and professional life predating his legislative career.

I don’t begrudge the GOP its talking points. Welch’s politics obviously aren’t going to appeal to the vast majority of Republican voters. Questions about personal conduct can be sketchy, and although Welch maintains the outcry indicates “my Republican colleagues are threatened by the potential growth of my profile,” it’s not dirty pool to at least raise concerns given the dynamics of gender relations at the Statehouse in the last few years.

Furthermore, any Democrat serving as speaker while Madigan remains in the House will be unable to avoid whispers of influence. Even if Madigan were to retire from the General Assembly, he’d have to also step down as head of the Democratic Party of Illinois to at least give the perception of a clean break from the structure he established over decades.

Democrats still hold considerable majorities in both chambers and the governor’s mansion. First they’ll draw new legislative maps, then they’ll see how the Congressional races shake out and get down to the business of campaigning to keep power — and a U.S. Senate seat — in 2022. Welch is but one cog in that massive machine, but the party overall might be best served if he keeps as low a profile as possible, perhaps even pledging to serve only a single term while his chamber adjusts to the new session’s rules and the how the speaker’s powers might be different.

Change has come. Now what?

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.