SPRINGFIELD — Every two years, when a new Illinois General Assembly is inaugurated, the leadership offers rhetoric filled with hope, bipartisanship and a message of unity in which both political parties promise to work together for the state’s residents.
But it traditionally is a short-lived kumbaya moment that soon gives way to a political climate filled with contentious social issues and sharp partisan divisions in a legislature that in recent years has been dominated by Democrats with little need for Republican input. And then it all leads up to the next election season less than two years away.
Such was the case on Wednesday, as the new 103rd General Assembly was formally inaugurated with a record 78 Democrats in the House, compared with 40 Republicans, while a 40-19 Democratic majority was sworn into the Senate. Democrats picked up five House seats in the Nov. 8 election, while Republicans picked up a lone Senate seat.
Democratic Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park, reelected to a two-year term as leader, made a symbolic show of bipartisanship by casting his vote for president not for himself, but for new Republican leader John Curran of Downers Grove, at the Senate’s inauguration ceremony at the Old State Capitol.
In the University of Illinois Springfield auditorium, where the House inaugural was held, Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside, who was reelected to the leadership post, urged members and the audience to applaud new Republican leader Tony McCombie of Savanna as the first woman to head a House partisan caucus.
Turnover and change was the backdrop for the inaugural, where 16 new senators and 24 new representatives were sworn in — with two House vacancies yet to be filled — as several veteran lawmakers in both parties departed due to resignation or election losses.
Harmon took note of the elevation of Curran and McCombie to membership in the “four tops” — the top four partisan leaders in the House and Senate — as well as Welch’s just-completed first term as speaker after replacing scandal-tarred veteran Speaker Michael Madigan, who is under federal indictment.
“I am … a bit surprised by the reality that, as of today, with a whopping tenure of not quite three years, I am now the longest-serving legislative leader in the General Assembly,” Harmon said.
Acknowledging the overwhelming Democratic majorities they face and the potential for Republican irrelevancy, Curran and McCombie each urged Harmon and Welch to allow Republican voices and ideas to play a role in the legislative process.
“Illinois is better served when our public policies are crafted from two, not one, participating parties,” Curran said. “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 their votes and their voices are represented.”
Yet Curran also acknowledged problems within the state GOP that has created a schism between social moderates and a hard-line, far-right downstate core allied with former President Donald Trump, who has twice lost Illinois by 17 percentage points, and saw its Trump-backed governor candidate, Darren Bailey, lose to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker by almost 13 percentage points.
“It has been a long, difficult road for our party, our state and our world,” said Curran, succeeding state Sen. Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods, who is remaining in the legislature. “But the only way to move forward is to move on. Today, Jan. 11, 2023, the Illinois Senate Republicans are proudly facing the future.”
Harmon remarked that the Old State Capitol inauguration site, chosen because the Senate chamber in the current Statehouse is under renovation, was “a place of fresh starts and new beginnings.” It was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided” speech that helped propel him to the presidency and Barack Obama’s announcement speech that he was running for president in 2008, and it has regularly hosted naturalization ceremonies.
Welch was complimentary of McCombie, who is succeeding nine-year House GOP leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who retired.
“If you’ve ever watched any of our floor debates, you know Leader McCombie and I have disagreed. And while we will certainly have more disagreements, it is my hope that even our disagreements can be productive and we remember that the reasons why we’re doing the work are very similar,” said Welch.
“I’m ready to work. The House Democratic caucus is ready to do the work. Together, Leader McCombie, we’re ready to do the work,” he said. “Some people are going to say that we can’t work together. But I ask you to join me in saying, ‘Yes, we did.’”
But Welch warned that any interest in working with Republicans involves only those who value “civility and respect.”
“Those who choose 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,” he said.
In her remarks, McCombie painted an unflattering picture of Illinois’ political landscape from her perspective, lamenting the one-party Democratic control of state government and how its system of checks and balances “is unbalanced and unhealthy for us all, Republicans, Democrats and independents.”
“We have an opportunity with leadership changes to reimagine what we expect from our state government,” she said. “We must prioritize the coequal nature of our government and prioritize fulfilling a constitutional, a constitutional” — she shouted the word — “duty, one which supersedes party loyalty or providing those checks and balances.”
She also insisted that Welch be more inclusive of the Republicans.
“Republicans here represent a part of all 102 counties,” McCombie said. “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 talent and hear our hearts. Let us show you that any preconceived notions about Republicans is false.
“We want to govern,” she said to applause. “So I ask you, please don’t disregard our value.”
But the stark partisan divide was brought to the forefront when state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez of Cicero, the chair of the state Democratic Party, gave a nominating speech for Welch for speaker and lauded his work unifying Democrats against “rising Republican extremism.”
Standing at a lectern in front of seated House GOP members, her comments led to a few groans in the crowded auditorium.
“Well, we won,” she said before an eruption of applause. “Five additional seats.”
“And not only did (Welch) keep us in the super, super House majority, he was highly instrumental in the victory of the two (Illinois) Supreme Court and statewide constitutional races,” she said.
Amid the sometimes rosy optimistic portrayals of the future, Harmon used his inauguration acceptance speech as a warning to lawmakers’ actions in a General Assembly socked by scandals, investigations, federal indictments and convictions.
He did not name Madigan, the nation’s longest-serving legislative leader until he was dislodged from power two years ago and had pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges. But Harmon alluded to how “we’ve all unfortunately witnessed the sweeping tarnish that comes when even one elected official strays.”
Reciting the words of new state Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Rochford’s father, James Rochford, who served as Chicago police superintendent from a 1976 police graduation ceremony, Harmon said: “If you lack integrity, get out — get out now — because you will be found out. Too 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.”
“If you aren’t here to do what’s right for the people of Illinois,” Harmon said, “then I would suggest you take Mr. Rochford’s advice. The people of Illinois deserve better and it is up to us to deliver.”