Illinois’ new House Speaker wants to bring the state together, saying “diversity is our strength”

State News

PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — After nearly 50 years, Illinois has a new speaker of the house.

WMBD’s Matt Sheehan caught up with Speaker Emanuel Chris Welch (D-Westchester) to talk about the “fair maps” proposal, the state’s battle against COVID-19, and President Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan.

SHEEHAN: You were complimentary of Speaker Madigan on the day you were elected speaker. Obviously, a new leader means change. What are some of the things most important to you to freshen up?

WELCH: It’s important to role out a very diverse leadership team, a leadership team that looks like our state. Our diversity is our strength in Illinois. I think it’s important that we work together, and I was proud to appoint as my speaker pro tempore, your local legislator right there in Peoria who you should be proud of, leader Jehan Gordon-Booth. She’s an instrumental part of my team. I’m looking forward to working with her and the diverse perspective that she brings from the district she represents.”

SHEEHAN: You and Rep. Gordon-Booth will be working together under your leadership — what kind of influence will she have?

WELCH: Leader Gordon-Booth has been a friend of mine the entire 8 years I’ve been the general assembly, she played a large role in helping me become the first Black Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives in our state’s history. I value her opinion, she will play a huge role in setting the agenda here that we follow in the House of Representatives. She’s someone I’m gonna lean on.”

SHEEHAN: I wanted to ask you about House Bill 3653. Law enforcement officials in our area have told us they are concerned with this bill, saying it’ll take away necessary funding from their departments and also impact services they can offer to Illinoisans. Do you believe lawmakers need to reassess this bill and get more law enforcement perspective, or do you think Gov. Pritzker should sign it as is?

WELCH: I believe Gov. Pritzker should sign it as is. I think what people have to realize is this bill was put together after months of collaborative input and hearings from stakeholders all across the state. We need to remember these bills that were put together as part of the Black Caucus agenda, came together after a black man was killed when someone put their knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Law enforcement needs to realize reform needs to happen, reform is on the way, and Gov. Pritzker needs to sign the bill as is. Do we need to continue to have conversations? We should always continue to have conversations and find ways to continue to improve — law enforcement is always welcome to be a part of that conversation. This bill wasn’t just thrown on a board and people voted on it, it was the result of months and months of work and stakeholder input.

SHEEHAN: Illinois GOP lawmakers pushed for this fair maps proposal in 2018, according to the northwest herald. Gov. Pritzker was quoted saying he does support the end of gerrymandering district to promote more competitive elections. Do you agree with the governor on this, and is there any chance we see this fair maps proposal becoming a reality?

WELCH: I believe in fair maps, but my definition of fair maps might be different than what Gov. Pritzker’s definition is, what the Illinois GOP’s definition is. We have to get everyone around the table and at least have an open and transparent process. I think a fair map has to be reflective of the diverse population of this state. The population has to drive what happens here, and diversity is our strength, and our diversity should show up in our map. If that’s not reflective in our map, that’s not a fair map in my opinion, but again, others may differ. We have to be willing to listen to all views and have an open and transparent process and I’m willing to do that.

SHEEHAN: Before being the speaker of the house, you represented Illinois’ 7th District in Chicago in Cook County. For those in Central Illinois who haven’t seen you very much these last couple of years, what should they know about you and how are you going to work for them as well?

WELCH: I’m not from Chicago, I’m not from downstate, I like to say I’m the guy in the middle. I’m the bridge to both to make us one Illinois. If you look at me, and my leadership team I’ve rolled out, that leadership team is reflective of our state. I live by a motto a high school teacher told me years ago, “People may doubt what you say, but they believe what you do.” I don’t want you to listen to anything I’m saying to you, I want you to watch my actions. We’re going to bring this state together and work collaboratively to move us forward, work together to improve Illinois.

SHEEHAN: A big pressing thing going on is COVID-19. What’s your role in the vaccination plan and how much involvement do you have in that?

WELCH: COVID-19 is a real issue for us. I’ve had conversations with the governor, I have another today, it’s a constant on-going issue. My caucus has raised issues that have been brought to them from their constituents and that I take to the governor, there’s a reality we are in. We are in 1B as of today, educators across the state can be vaccinated. But there are 3.2 million people who are now eligible to be vaccinated, with only 140,000 doses available. So we have to continue to find ways to get these doses into the communities equitably. We have to continue to press the federal government, the Biden administration to increase production and get these vaccines out there as quickly as possible. I’m happy to see a number of vaccination centers are opening up across the state including in areas near me, that’s a positive development.

SHEEHAN: What are your thoughts on President Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan? How do you think it’ll impact Illinois if it gets passed?

WELCH: I am pleasantly surprised and optimistic about the president’s plan. I think we need a plan that’s robust that’s going to help state and local governments. A lot of the budget issues we’re dealing with, we’ve had a long time, but a lot of budget issues we’re dealing with, were exacerbated because of COVID-19. We need the federal government to step in and help state and local governments across the country. I’m happy to have an administration in Washington right now that realize states and local governments need assistance.

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