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Illinois Democrats oust longest-serving state House Speaker in US history

Democrats in the Illinois House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to anoint state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D) as their next leader, formally ending decades of control by House Speaker Mike Madigan (D), who has served longer than any other state Speaker in U.S. history.

Welch, who represents a suburban district west of Chicago, secured the votes he needed for Speaker after making a deal with state Rep. Jay Hoffman (D), who will hold a leadership post next year. Welch is poised to become the first Black lawmaker to hold the Speaker’s gavel in Illinois history.

His ascension comes after months of tumult among Illinois House Democrats, a growing number of whom had called on Madigan to leave his post. Madigan has been the House speaker — and Illinois’s most powerful politician — for 36 of the last 38 years.

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But Madigan's associates and allies have increasingly been wrapped in a sprawling federal investigation into the lobbying practices of Commonwealth Edison, the state’s largest utility. Several Madigan associates have been charged with crimes, though Madigan himself has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The company has agreed to pay a $200 million fine after admitting to a scheme to hand out jobs and lobbying contracts to Madigan’s allies.

Madigan maintained his power by building and maintaining one of the last major political machines in America. From his base on the Southwest Side of Chicago, Madigan has for years operated a patronage system that has ensured his tenure in office, and his control of the state Democratic Party.

The crowd of younger, progressive Democrats who won election outside of Madigan’s machine swelled in recent years. Buoyed by the ComEd scandal, a sufficient number of Democrats pledged to withhold their votes to deny Madigan the votes necessary to serve another term.

Madigan suspended his own campaign for Speaker earlier this week when it became apparent he did not have the 60 votes necessary to win the speakership. On Wednesday, he conceded his time was up.

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“As I prepare to pass the Speaker’s gavel to a new generation of Democratic leadership, I want to thank the people of my district and the members of the House Democratic Caucus for the faith and trust they have placed in me over the years,” Madigan said in a statement. “It is time for new leadership in the House. I wish all the best for Speaker-elect Welch as he begins a historic speakership.”

Welch will be formally elected later on Wednesday when the full state House convenes at the Bank of Springfield Center, where they are meeting to abide by social distancing guidelines.

Madigan is likely to maintain at least some of his power. Welch, who has served in the state House for eight years, is a Madigan ally who most recently served as chair of the House Executive Committee. Welch also chaired a committee looking into Madigan’s relationship with ComEd, which disbanded after finding nothing wrong with Madigan’s actions.

Updated on Thursday at 1:48 p.m.