New Illinois General Assembly Convenes

Illinois’ leadership has shifted, with a fresh group of 177 lawmakers sworn in to office on Wednesday.

The 103rd General Assembly has more Asian Americans, the first Muslim member in 23-year-old state Rep. Nabeela Syed, D-Inverness, and a record number of Democratic House members, led by Illinois’ first Black House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

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Welch day was sworn into a second term in the position, by his wife, Judge ShawnTe Raines-Welch.

“Mr. Speaker, are you ready to take the oath of office, and when I say the House, I mean … ,” she joked, as her husband swore his oath on a Bible given to the couple by his mother when they moved into their first home.

As in, the House chambers under the statehouse’s golden dome, not their family home in suburban Hillside.

Welch said there’s work to do: Uplifting families by rewarding work not wealth, rebuilding Illinois’ fiscal health and making communities safer communities by both investing in police as well as attacking the root causes of crime. All, he said, with a priority on equity.

“Equity in health care, equity in education, equity in workplaces. Yes, equity also in our judicial system,” Welch said. “When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, it ends with ‘justice for all.’ Justice for all means all.”

Welch signaled pride at the swelled ranks of House Democrats, up to 78 to Republicans’ 40, but he also signaled a tone of bipartisanship, saying he is speaker not of Democrats, but of the entire House and that he'll work to find common cause, even if he disagrees.

“Cause disagreement is healthy. Those who chose discord, those whose blind allegiance to extreme ideology, that would dismantle our fundamental institutions, those who would derail the work people have sent us here to do: They will find that this House will not waste the people’s time on any of their games,” Welch said.

Meanwhile, the newly-minted House Minority Leader, Rep. Tony McCombie (the first woman elected to lead a House Caucus) said she was elected to restore and rebuild Republican ranks.

McCombie says Democrats’ dominance and one-party control is putting Illinois at risk, with policies that are growing the size of government and chasing families out of the state.

“Our system of checks and balances between our co-equal branches of government is unbalanced and unhealthy for us all. Republicans, Democrats and independents,” McCombie said during her on-stage speech.

With their super-majority-plus numbers, Democrats don’t need Republican votes to pass legislation, but McCombie made a public plea to Welch to work with her anyway.

“It’s time for courageous leadership,” McCombie said. “Leadership must be unafraid to be forthright. So I ask you, Speaker Welch, don’t be afraid. Bring us to the table. We are problem solvers, so use our knowledge. Benefit from our talents, and hear our hearts. Let us show you that any preconceived notions about Republicans is false.”

Illinois senators likewise took their oath of office Wednesday, in the historic setting of the former state capitol where Abraham Lincoln served as a state legislator.

As in the House, there is also turnover in the Senate's Republican leadership; Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove is now the top Republican.

Curran signaled a similar tone to McCombie, and said democracy is best served when policies are crafted by two parties, rather than unilaterally.

“Regardless of the letter next to our name, we are all here to do one thing: Create a better Illinois,” Curran said. “That means that all legislators, not just the majority, are here to represent our constituents through creating strong, practical public policy. There are millions of Illinoisans who support the Republican principles of freedom and economic opportunity for all. It is my job as leader to ensure that their votes and their voices are represented.”

Curran said he’ll be genuine about looking for opportunities to collaborate, but that Republicans will be steadfast in opposing “misplaced policies” that harm Illinois families and businesses.

The most senior of the powerful top four legislative leaders, Senate President Don Harmon, didn’t lay out a specific policy agenda in his remarks.

Rather, he read a quote he said stuck with him from the recent swearing-in of new Illinois Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Rochford, first said by her CPD police superintendent father James Rochford, in a ‘76 speech to new patrol officers.

“If you lack integrity get out, get out now because you will be found out. To be sorry is too late. If you remember the esteem in which you are held by your family and friends – many of whom are in this hall – you will save them the eventual shame and heartbreak,” Harmon quoted.

He went on to add his own perspective.

“We’ve all unfortunately witnessed the sweeping tarnish that comes when even one elected official strays. If you aren’t here to do what’s right for the people of Illinois, I would suggest you take Mr. Rochford’s advice,” Harmon said. “The people of Illinois deserve better and it’s up to us to deliver.”             

Even among the celebratory pomp of inauguration, it was a stark ethical warning, after a lot of recent such stains.

State Sen. Emil Jones III, who was among those who took the oath of office Wednesday, has pleaded not guilty to federal bribery charges.

Former House Speaker Michael Madigan will face trial in April 2024 on corruption charges related to a bribery scheme; Madigan has pleaded not guilty.

Other recent legislators mired in legal scandal include former Rep. Luis Arroyo, who in May was sentenced to five years in prison for accepting bribes as a legislator; in 2020 former Sen. Terry Link pleaded guilty to tax evasion; in June, former Sen. Tom Cullerton was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to embezzlement; in 2020 former Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to bribery. Sandoval later died for complications related to COVID-19.

The 103rd General Assembly will get down to business Thursday, after the 102nd lame duck legislature spent the past several days rushing to send bills to the governor’s desk.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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