SPRINGFIELD – A mix of incumbents and newly minted lawmakers were sworn into their terms in the 103rd General Assembly Wednesday following a hectic week of “lame duck” action in the House and Senate.
The crowning achievement from Democrats who wield total control of state government was a ban on the sale and manufacture of assault weapons in Illinois. Sixteen hours after Gov. JB Pritzker signed the measure into law, the Rev. Jerry Doss of Springfield’s Abundant Faith Christian Center recognized it before his invocation over the House swearing-in ceremony.
“I want to also personally thank you – the leaders and the decision-makers – for passing the bill last night on banning assault weapons,” Doss said. “We appreciate you. Thank you.”
Doss’ comment was met with rousing cheers from Democratic supporters – and silence from Republicans. Though the dozens of speeches during inauguration activities on Wednesday struck positive notes about working together for the good of Illinois, they also contained subtle hints about the growing partisan divide in Springfield.
“Those who choose discord, those whose blind allegiance to extreme ideology 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 their games,” House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, warned in his address in the auditorium at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Seven miles north during the Senate’s inauguration ceremony at the Old State Capitol, incoming Senate GOP Leader John Curran of Downers Grove spoke as a member of the superminority party.
“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.”
Welch touted the importance of debate and compromise while reminding legislators to remember their “why.”
“As legislators, we’re going to disagree on ‘how’ to achieve a goal, or ‘when’ is the right time to do it. But more often than not, our ‘why’ is very much the same,” he said. “We want to help people. We want to use the opportunities afforded to us to create more opportunities for those who come after us.”
He then took a moment to acknowledge former Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, who officially resigned his seat on Tuesday.
“It’s no secret that Rep. Jim Durkin and I would disagree on many of the ‘hows’ and ‘whens’ of lawmaking, and we would often make those disagreements known–sometimes at maximum volume,” Welch said. “And that’s a good thing, because debate and disagreement are necessary steps toward compromise and cooperation – as long as we never lose sight of our ‘why.’”
Welch was formally elected to a second term as Speaker of the House with unanimous Democratic support and was sworn in by his wife, ShawnTe Raines-Welch, a new Cook County Judge. He took his oath on a family Bible that was passed on to him and his wife when they got married 12 years ago.
Last year’s campaign cycle added to the tremendous churn in lawmakers Springfield has seen over the past handful of years, resulting in the least-tenured crop of House and Senate members in modern history.
Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, noted that “with a whopping tenure of not quite three years” he’s now the longest-serving legislative leader in the General Assembly.
“Make of that what you will,” he quipped.
Tony McCombie, elected for the first time as Republican Minority Leader, became the first woman to ever lead a House caucus. In her speech, the Savanna Republican stressed a need for better balance in Illinois, making special note of the state’s “gerrymandered maps.”
“We must prioritize the co-equal nature of our government and prioritize fulfilling the constitutional duty,” McCombie told the crowd. “My Republican colleagues in the House have put their faith in me to restore, and to rebuild, and to bring balance to Illinois. It will be difficult but we will claw back in the wake of the worst gerrymandered maps in the country.”
Part of the turnover is also due to forced resignations as legislators have found themselves mired in scandal in a wide-ranging federal probe alleging wrongdoing connected with legislation including gambling operations, red light cameras and giant utility companies.
Welch’s predecessor, longtime powerful House Speaker Mike Madigan ceded his gavel nearly two years ago after growing pressure from his caucus to step down after being named as the target of alleged bribes by Chicago-based electric utility Commonwealth Edison. Madigan faces trial next year, while others connected with the scandal are scheduled for their day in court this spring.
After the feds filed even more evidence in their case against ComEd’s former lobbyists and executives late Tuesday night, Harmon’s address also included a warning to his colleagues, noting the “sweeping tarnish” that affects all Springfield politicians “that comes when even one elected official strays.”
“What is best for the nearly 13 million people who collectively call Illinois home?” Harmon challenged his fellow senators to think about. “Be guided by that truth, whether it be politically convenient or not. If your motivations are elsewhere, the Illinois Senate is not for you.”
Curran’s rise to minority leader began around the Nov. 8 election, when Republicans only netted one seat in the Senate under the direction of Sen. Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, who will remain in office despite being pushed out of his leadership role after narrowly surviving a Democratic challenge in November.
In his speech, Curran noted he replaced former Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont in the Senate after her retirement in 2017. The suburban leader had been stymied in her efforts to broker a bipartisan deal to end Illinois’ budget impasse under one-term GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.
While her efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, Curran’s voting record is reminiscent of the type of suburban Republicans once common in Springfield, who have largely followed Radogno out of office. Curran has often been one of, if not the only, Republican vote on legislation pushed by Democrats.
Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, joked that as Curran’s seatmate, he “showed him there actually is a little red button” to vote against a bill.
“A lot of people in this chamber get [us] confused for each other. It might be our height, it might be our dashing good looks, it could be our vo – well, maybe two out of three,” Plummer joked, referring to the difference between his staunchly conservative voting record and that of Curran.
Standing in the chamber where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous “House Divided” speech, references to the 16th president were not in short supply during the Senate’s inauguration. But Harmon pointed out that when Lincoln gave that speech in 1858, it “bombed.”
“His friends and advisers warned it was far too radical for the times,” Harmon said of the pre-Civil War era when the South was threatening to secede. “Lincoln would lose that Senate race to Stephen Douglas. Some would blame the tone of the speech for the loss. So why give it? Because Lincoln believed there was an important message that people needed to hear. The debate had gone on long enough. It was time to pick a side.”