Juggling a coffee, a briefcase and his cellphone, Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch was making his way through the metal detectors two years ago at the Springfield convention center where the Illinois House was conducting business when he got a call from a phone number he didn’t recognize.
It came from Springfield’s 217 area code. So Welch picked up, figuring it must be some staffer with news about work.
Instead, the voice on the line was that of embattled Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, the longest-serving legislative leader in American history. He was calling to say history may be about to change. Madigan of Chicago wanted to know if Welch of Hillside was interested in the job.
Facing unyielding opposition from 19 mostly female lawmakers, Madigan matter-of-factly delivered a once-unfathomable message that Welch recounted last week in an interview with the Tribune: “I’ve done this a long time. The votes aren’t there. It’s time to step aside.”
Madigan’s words launched Welch into a furious, 48-hour, lobbying campaign of House Democrats that ended with him as the first Black House speaker in Illinois’ two centuries of statehood.
“I got pretty emotional during that call,” Welch recalled. “When I called my wife, I was still pretty emotional. Here’s the thought of me being speaker … starting to set in.”
As Welch begins his second term as speaker this week, the Tribune aimed to detail the hectic behind-the-scenes machinations two years ago that resulted in the end of Madigan’s 36-year reign as head of the House, the internal fights among House Democrats to pick his successor and the beginning of Welch’s tenure.
In contrast to the chaos in Washington, no tense moments are expected this week in naming the Illinois House speaker, given that Welch’s House Democrats won a modern-day record 78 seats — a group Welch now calls “The Great 78.”
Welch put a final exclamation point on his first, two-year term this past week when the House approved Democratic-led initiatives to ban high-powered firearms and expand abortion rights.
Two years ago, the fight to strip Madigan of the speakership splintered the Illinois House Democratic caucus between supporters who ignored warning signs as a federal investigation was closing in and opponents, led by the 19, who felt Madigan’s links to a quickly expanding scandal involving utility giant Commonwealth Edison foretold the end of his unprecedented run. Many Democrats also were tired of being tarnished because they were members of a Madigan-led caucus that opened them up to constant political attacks by Republicans who tried to win campaigns by tying all Democrats to the speaker’s contentious command.
“There are no rules of engagement when you go up against the longest-serving speaker in the whole nation’s history,” said Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego, a Marine Corps veteran who became the first Democratic House member to challenge Madigan’s speakership. “There’s no guidebook to that. But, at the end of the day, I wanted representatives to have a choice.”
Rep. Terra Costa Howard, the Glen Ellyn Democrat who had only been in office two years at the time, said she came out early against keeping Madigan as speaker because, “I wanted to be able to look my kids in the eye and know that I did the right thing.”
“I did not want the work that I did to be tied to that level of corruption and power,” she said.
Madigan loyalists — some lawmakers, lobbyists and union operatives — lashed out at those seeking change, according to some of the 19. They said they were labeled as traitors, cussed out and still experience some strained relationships.
“Oh, man. It was brutal. It was brutal,” said Rep. Maurice West II, the only Black lawmaker to join the opposition group, a move made before the coalition was big enough to take away Madigan’s gavel. “I felt isolated. I felt alone. … And it hurt.”
West, a Rockford Democrat, eventually delivered the first nominating speech for Welch to lead the House. He also recalled how in March 2022, a little more than a year later, Madigan was indicted.
“We were on the House floor when this happened. On the House floor,” recalled West, an ordained minister. “Just think if he was speaker when this happened. And so I wept in my seat because it vindicated us.”
In January 2021, Madigan initially refused to give up his grip on power despite growing odds against him and as House lawmakers worked through long, tumultuous days as one term was ending and a new two-year term was beginning.
In multiple closed-door meetings of House Democrats, Madigan tested the strength of his opposition while also clearing the way for the General Assembly to pass the criminal justice reform package now known as the SAFE-T Act.
One of three major initiatives championed by Black lawmakers at the time, the law would become a flashpoint in the 2022 election as it received soft-on-crime criticism and required multiple amendments even before a Kankakee County judge struck down as unconstitutional a no-cash bail and other court provisions that were supposed to take effect Jan. 1. It is now before the Democratic-led Illinois Supreme Court, where Welch said he remains “pretty confident” the justices “will see it our way.”
Critics viewed the SAFE-T Act’s passage as Madigan’s way of trying to keep minority support for his effort to hold onto the speakership, and they blamed him for allowing the bill to advance before it could be thoroughly vetted.
“That was one of the worst moments in that chamber’s history, on process and substance,” said House Republican leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who opposed the bill. “That would not have passed under the old Mike Madigan under those conditions. … But he was desperate to hang on.”
Though he had survived controversies over the decades, Madigan’s clout took a serious hit the moment U.S. Attorney John Lausch unveiled on July 17, 2020, a deferred prosecution agreement with ComEd in a yearslong bribery case. Madigan was not charged or even named at that point, but he was identified nonetheless with the designation of “Public Official A.”
In a matter of months, Madigan’s House Democrats would abandon the man whose political acumen helped many of them secure their roles in the legislature and whose roots dated back to Mayor Richard J. Daley, Madigan’s onetime mentor who ran Chicago’s once-indomitable Democratic machine.
Ever since Madigan was dethroned in January 2021, his political trajectory has spiraled downward. He returned to his Southwest Side home and resigned a month later from the House seat he’d held for more than 50 years. And last year, Madigan was indicted twice — once involving the alleged bribes-for-favors scheme with ComEd and a second time in a superseding indictment that included similar allegations involving AT&T.
Both utility giants have acknowledged they placed Madigan allies in little-to-no work jobs in hopes of winning his favor on their legislative agendas. ComEd agreed to a $200 million fine, a local record, and AT&T agreed to a $23 million fine. Both have bribery counts pending that will be dropped if they cooperate.
Madigan did not return messages left for him for this story. His case is up for a status hearing on Monday. He has pleaded not guilty and has used more than $8 million from his political funds to pay criminal defense lawyers.
The uprising against Madigan began quietly.
For more than a decade before he was ousted, Madigan had been holding off a tide of controversies. Starting in 2010, the Tribune published “The Madigan Rules,” a first-of-its-kind, yearslong investigation that outlined numerous potential conflicts of interests between his private business as a tax appeals lawyer and his elected position. The Tribune also detailed Madigan patronage, tracing more than 400 men and women who had obtained government jobs also worked elections for him, donated regularly to his campaign funds, registered voters for him or circulated candidate petitions on his behalf. And the Tribune disclosed a secret report that scolded Madigan for mixing patronage and government issues at Metra, the suburban rail service.
In early 2018, the Tribune revealed campaign worker Alaina Hampton alleged she was sexually harassed by Kevin Quinn, a top Madigan lieutenant and the brother of 13th Ward Ald. Marty Quinn. Madigan dumped Kevin Quinn from the speaker’s government and political organizations at the height of the national #MeToo movement. But the scandal, along with other misbehaving aides the speaker ousted, carried a lingering effect that weakened Madigan politically.
[ 10 years of Madigan coverage: Read the Tribune’s investigations into Illinois’ House speaker ]
Then, in 2019, the first major hint of how serious a burgeoning federal investigation came when the FBI raided the homes of several Madigan allies, including one of Madigan’s closest confidants, Michael McClain, a former state representative and longtime contract lobbyist for ComEd. While Madigan told reporters he was “not a target of anything,” the Tribune disclosed before 2019 was over that federal authorities had tapped McClain’s phone and had quizzed at least four people about Madigan’s operations.
Loyalists for Madigan, who had been speaker for every year since 1983 except two in the mid-1990s, discounted the developments and noted he’d always managed to ride out political storms before. But some wary lawmakers, including the earliest members of the 19, called and texted each other, wondering what it would take for other colleagues, as one put it, to say, “Enough.”
The “Public Official A” designation in the ComEd case rocked Madigan like nothing before when it hit in July 2020.
ComEd acknowledged in the deferred prosecution agreement that it hired Madigan’s Southwest Side cronies into little-to-no-work jobs, handed out internships to college kids from his 13th Ward empire, steered business to political ally Victor Reyes’ law firm, and installed former McPier boss Juan Ochoa on the state-regulated utility’s board of directors — all in hopes the speaker would look favorably on the utility’s agenda. Neither Reyes nor Ochoa have been accused of wrongdoing.
ComEd benefited lucratively from multiple pieces of legislation it wanted during a bribery scheme that stretched from 2011 to 2019, prosecutors said.
While Madigan tried to downplay the revelations by saying he’d never made a legislative decision with improper motives and that he had not engaged in wrongdoing, he did little to calm some Democrats’ nerves.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was “deeply troubled and frankly I’m furious,” and a small band of Democratic lawmakers began to organize.
Among the first to push for removing Madigan as speaker was, not surprisingly, Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, who refused to support Madigan for speaker two years earlier following the 2018 #MeToo issues. This time she said he should resign both as speaker and as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. A Naperville Democrat, Stava-Murray recalled in a recent Tribune interview that her first thought about the ComEd case was how “my constituents were right about him.”
Costa Howard released a statement saying the “corruption and unethical behavior” revealed in the ComEd probe made it impossible for Madigan to continue. Kifowit, who’d previously received campaign support from Madigan, said she would not vote for him as speaker because he should be “held to a higher standard.”
Also in the mix was Rep. Kelly Cassidy, the Chicago firebrand who had successfully pushed Madigan to conduct what became a searing critique of the legislature’s workplace culture following the 2018 #MeToo allegations.
When Chicago-based Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, who had just been appointed to the House in 2019, joined the small group, she wasn’t sure “that it would result in an actual leadership change” but was “motivated by the need to rebuild trust in government and politics,” she said.
Amid the ComEd accusations, Republicans called for a separate investigation into Madigan’s actions and the Democratic-led House established a special committee to look into the matter and named Welch — a Madigan ally — as head of it.
Madigan acknowledged the criminal case that identified him as “Public Official A” had made it “difficult for our caucus and party” but said in a statement that many House Democrats he talked to still spoke favorably about keeping him in charge.
“I have no plans to resign,” Madigan said, a comment that spurred Pritzker to say the speaker needed to “stand up and answer” questions about the ComEd case.
As grumbling among Democratic lawmakers continued, Kifowit in October 2020 announced she would run against Madigan for speaker.
“You can’t make change if nobody is going to step up and be the person that’s the change agent,” Kifowit said.
Even though Kifowit didn’t get overwhelming support, Costa Howard saw the announcement as a “game-changer.”
Madigan backers dug in against Kifowit and insisted Madigan should still be the speaker.
Welch soon announced the special committee investigating Madigan wouldn’t hold any more meetings until after the Nov. 3 election, a decision Republican leader Durkin called a “disgrace.”
But the fissures kept expanding.
Less than two weeks before the election, West said during an interview on a Rockford television news program that he would not vote for Madigan for speaker. After the interview, West spoke with Welch and then called Madigan in his 13th Ward office the next day, a Saturday, at 7 a.m.
“He said, ‘Between now and when the vote (for speaker) is, I hope I can do what must be done to help you reconsider your vote,’ ” West recalled, saying he held firm in his opposition. “I was ready to lose my seat if I had to.”
While the ComEd scandal simmered, political defeats on Election Day of 2020 also damaged Madigan.
Voters rejected both a Democratic-backed proposal to enact a graduated state income tax and the candidacy of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride in a year when Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden easily won Illinois. Madigan took much of the blame for the losses as Republicans tied both issues to the embattled speaker.
After the election, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Pritzker questioned keeping Madigan as chair of the state party. And U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, also a Democrat, suggested Madigan should no longer be either speaker or party chair.
While Madigan showed no sign of taking the advice from the Democratic leaders, federal prosecutors changed the political landscape once again a few weeks later when they indicted McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and two other ComEd lobbyists. They have all pleaded not guilty.
The indictments, alleging schemes to influence Madigan, triggered a renewed surge in the anti-Madigan movement.
The next day, eight more House Democrats came out against Madigan, raising the number of colleagues against him to 16, meaning he’d only be able to get 57 of the 60 votes needed to be reelected speaker. Among those making their opposition clear was a group of four women lawmakers who previously had written Madigan privately asking him to consider stepping aside: Reps. Deb Conroy of Elmhurst, Robyn Gabel of Evanston, Anna Moeller of Elgin and Ann Williams of Chicago.
“We felt that we needed to have change,” said Conroy, who two months ago was elected head of the DuPage County Board. “We were not publicly going to come out against him without having conversations with him first.”
Hers was a “very difficult conversation.”
“I was struck by the fact that I don’t think at the time that the speaker realized the seriousness of just how difficult it was for all of those 19 members to come to that decision,” Conroy recalled.
Moeller said she had hoped Madigan would have retired before trying to win another term as speaker but that his decision to run again put House Democrats and the party in a “difficult position,” given the ComEd cases.
Eventually the group got to 19 when Addison Rep. Kathy Willis, who Madigan recruited years earlier and had promoted to his House leadership team, said she would not vote for Madigan as speaker.
In all, the 19 were: Cassidy, Conroy, Costa Howard, Gabel, Kifowit, LaPointe, Moeller, Stava-Murray, West, Williams and Willis, as well as Reps. Jonathan Carroll of Northbrook, Margaret Croke of Chicago, Eva-Dina Delgado of Chicago, Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove, Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz of Glenview, Will Guzzardi of Chicago, Bob Morgan of Deerfield and Sam Yingling of Grayslake.
Even though the opposition was increasing, Madigan still had strong supporters.
The Black Caucus held a forum with both Madigan and Kifowit. Madigan secured 21 of 22 members, with West still holding out. Madigan moved fast.
“He called me immediately and said, ‘Mr. West, now that the rest of the Black Caucus is on board with me, does this give you cover to come back to the fold?’ ” West recalled. West declined, and he still remembered the speaker’s nonresponse.
“The silence was so loud on the other end of the phone,” West said.
As lawmakers arrived in Springfield at the beginning of 2021, three women would challenge Madigan for speaker: Reps. Stephanie Kifowit, Ann Williams and Kathy Willis. But, at 78 years old, Madigan would make his last stand.
The four of them sat at a table in front of their fellow House Democrats in closed-door meetings for hours of blistering questions at the convention center, where the House was meeting amid the COVID-19 pandemic because it had more room.
On their first ballot, Madigan received only 51 votes, nine shy of the 60 needed.
Williams garnered 18 votes, the highest total of any challengers.
“I jumped in and ran for speaker to be a catalyst for change,” Williams recalled. “I wanted it to move the ball forward — and I think I did.”
The 18 votes that Williams received were viewed by several lawmakers interviewed as the majority of the 19 making it clear to Madigan that they were serious about wanting a new leader.
Kifowit received three votes, and Willis dropped out prior to the vote and tossed her support to Williams.
Shortly after that vote, Madigan made a move few had anticipated. He “suspended” his bid for another term as speaker, freeing up anyone else to try to round up 60 votes and leaving open the chance that he could swoop back in if his colleagues could not rally behind a successor.
Madigan’s maneuver prompted two new entrants — Welch and veteran Rep. Jay Hoffman of downstate Swansea — among a handful of lawmakers Madigan called.
Welch said the longtime speaker advised him to secure votes with the Black, Latino and downstate caucuses in that order.
“I don’t think he favored me,” Welch said. “I had to get out there and earn those votes. Those 48 hours, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I had to convince my colleagues to vote for me.”
But Madigan’s advice also included an important first step for Welch: Check with his wife, ShawnTe Raines-Welch.
“I said, ‘So this is going to be crazy,’ ” Welch said. “ ‘You know how they are. They’re going to beat the hell out of me. You sure you’re OK with this?’ ”
Welch vividly recalled her response: “I can take it, whatever else they throw out at you. If you’re interested, I’m 100% behind you.”
He quickly sought support from fellow members of the Black Caucus, but they questioned whether Madigan, who no one was ready to count out yet, was just trying to “smoke out traitors.”
“The Black Caucus was having none of it,” Welch said. “None of them believed it was real.”
But when the Black Caucus met again 12 hours later, their opinions about Madigan’s motives had changed and they told Welch they’d back him.
Welch then needed the Latino Caucus’ backing. He bolted out to find Rep. Lisa Hernandez, the Cicero Democrat and Madigan ally who headed the caucus and is now head of the state Democratic Party. Like the initial skepticism of some of the Black Caucus members, Welch recalled, Hernandez too wasn’t convinced Madigan’s suspension was legitimate. But a day later the Latino Caucus too backed Welch, soon bringing the race down to he and Hoffman, as Kifowit and Williams dropped out.
By the time the full Democratic caucus met late that Tuesday, Welch had 50 votes to Hoffman’s 15.
Just as it looked like Welch was rapidly moving toward 60 votes, he faced questions about his past.
The Tribune posted a story on Welch that included details from a 2002 police report about Hillside officers getting called to Welch’s home and his ex-girlfriend alleging that Welch slammed her head into a kitchen countertop numerous times after she called him “a loser.” The report said Welch denied the allegations. It also said the woman did not press charges after talking it over with a Welch relative.
Welch released a statement, saying the “verbal argument occurred nearly two decades ago.” He also added: “I will be honest that I have reconciled with the individual since that night.”
An alarmed Alaina Hampton, the former Democratic campaign worker who called out Madigan aide Kevin Quinn over sexual harassment, questioned how House Democrats could get behind Welch with the allegations outlined in the police report.
In a tense face-to-face moment in Springfield, Welch addressed a hastily gathered group of mostly women lawmakers at the convention center to attempt to quell concerns.
Cassidy looked at the police report story in the context of growing up in a violent home, where she said her father abused her mother and that her mother was discouraged from filing charges against him.
“It threw me into a tailspin,” the North Side lawmaker recalled. It dredged up memories of how she had to leave her home the night her mother was threatened, she said.
Though she plans to vote for Welch this year, she said she voted “present” two years ago because she had little time to “process” the allegations.
Stava-Murray said Welch was “very straightforward and shared directly with us about the issue and ultimately, obviously, made enough of us comfortable with what he said that we were OK with voting for him.”
“I think that we also have to keep in mind that, disproportionately, we are going to see Black men with those sorts of charges thrown against them,” the suburban legislator said. “It is a racial bias that exists in our country.”
Rep. Mary Flowers, a South Side Chicago Democrat who is dean of the House, called the story about Welch’s past a “shocker.”
But Flowers said, without a conviction, the incident could be considered a “he say, she say” matter.
Welch recalled answering every question and cited the gathering as one of “several very powerful, emotional moments during that 48 hours.”
“I just remember at some point during that meeting I didn’t say a word anymore,” Welch said. “The women started saying, ‘We know this man.’ ”
The full Democratic caucus, having worked deep into the night and early morning, gathered once again hours later on Jan. 13, the day they would all be sworn in at noon. Welch had hit 55 votes, and colleagues suggested he and Hoffman leave the room and work out their differences.
Hoffman would remain on the House Democratic leadership team and throw his support to Welch. The deal gave Welch 70 votes.
When Madigan’s reign as speaker officially ended on the House floor, it was almost anti-climactic.
But as West rose to nominate Welch to be the new speaker, the Rockford lawmaker first called for a standing ovation for Madigan.
“No matter where you stand on a scale of favorability, we must give recognition to whom recognition is due,” West said.
Durkin recalled the praise for Madigan caused him to immediately rewrite a speech he had prepared because “this was not the time — nor should there ever be a moment in time — to praise Mike Madigan because of his alleged widespread corruption under his watch.”
Citing the ComEd scandal and a “legacy driven by absolute power and control,” Durkin told fellow lawmakers that Madigan’s “legacy is also one which failed its citizens with unbalanced budgets, broken pension systems, tax increase after tax increase, with nothing to show for it.”
Before he left, Madigan voted for Welch and issued a statement acknowledging “it is time for new leadership” and wishing his successor well “as he begins a historic speakership.”
“It is my sincere hope today that the caucus I leave to him and to all who will serve alongside him is stronger than when I began,” Madigan said. “And as I look at the large and diverse Democratic majority we have built — full of young leaders ready to continue moving our state forward, strong women and people of color, and members representing all parts of our state — I am confident Illinois remains in good hands.”
In his address to the new House, Welch declared a “new day” in Springfield, and his Democratic troops have since seen differences between Welch’s leadership and Madigan’s highly secretive control.
Welch has made himself more available to rank-and-file Democrats, taken more of their calls and texts, and loosened up the flow of information from the speaker’s office.
Welch said he and Madigan have the same “core Democratic beliefs,” noting how Madigan stood up to one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“But I think we’re different in our approach to how we protect those values,” Welch said. “And I have to believe his style comes from his longevity and his age and the time that he came through, and my style comes from my age and the time I’m living in.”
It’s also a different job now.
During much of his time as speaker, Madigan had to work with Republican governors, which only enhanced his power as the state’s top Democrat, while he often fought with Democratic governors as he exerted that power. Welch has the advantage of working with a wealthy progressive Democratic governor and his position as speaker, while a top Democrat, is not the same role that Madigan filled.
Still, some Madigan stalwarts are concerned Welch, as he tries to smooth over inevitable bumps that come with a major transition, has yet to be as organized as the former speaker. And a few lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists have noted the loss of institutional memory.
Yet Welch has received mostly good reviews for diversity in assigning tasks to and bringing in more people in bill negotiations.
Welch’s troops advanced an agenda that included supporting clean energy, reproductive rights and anti-violence legislation.
“I don’t think you can argue with results,” Hoffman said, “and the results of what he’s been able to do have been fairly large in a short period of time.”
Overcoming the doubts, Welch raised big campaign dollars to back candidates and worked with Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park to redraw boundaries of state legislative, congressional and Illinois Supreme Court districts — all of which led to Democratic gains.
Durkin said Welch used a heavy hand to tilt districts so favorably for Democrats that they largely determined the outcomes before the election. “It was not a good moment in Illinois history,” Durkin said, particularly since Democrats had promised a fairer approach.
The new day for Democrats, a party that rose to dominance under Madigan, is defined now by moving ahead without him. It’s not the new day that Republicans had hoped for, but Durkin acknowledged Welch was successful in passing his agenda.
Looking ahead, Welch said his House Democrats “certainly have not peaked yet.”
When House Democrats gathered in caucus during November’s veto session, they saw a night-and-day difference from the infighting of two years ago. They found themselves laughing with each other rather than yelling.
“There is no doubt that we have turned a corner in the House,” Williams said. “It feels like a cloud has been lifted.”