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State Rep. Tony McCombie takes over leadership of a reduced GOP caucus

SPRINGFIELD — In March 2019, Republican Representative Tony McCombie vetoed a bill that would have required more diversity on the boards of directors of publicly held Illinois corporations.

His main sponsor was Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of suburban Hillside. McCombie called the proposal, which would require publicly held corporations to appoint at least one woman and one black person to their boards of directors, a “terrible bill” and said it was the latest example of government meddling in private business.

“We are destroying the ability of our state to develop,” she said.

During a heated debate on the floor, Welch once said, “I’m not going to stand here as a black man with a 5-year-old daughter and be ashamed that I’m fighting to get her a seat at the table.”

The bill eventually passed the House by a vote of 61-27, with McCombie voting no. But after the changes made it through the Senate, McCombie voted for the legislation.

Three years after this House In a debate that has contained some bipartisan divides, Welch is poised to begin his second term as House speaker while McCombie is poised to take over as House Republican leader.

Representing a largely rural district outside the Quad Cities in northwest Illinois, she would become the first woman to lead a party in the House of Representatives, a distinction she downplayed a day after the vote. McCombie told a crowd of reporters in her new state office that “women are doing their own thing,” but said she doesn’t want to be defined by her gender.

“You don’t get to choose because you’re a woman,” she said. “You should be chosen because you are the right person.”

Welch, the state’s first Black House speaker, congratulated her “as a history-making colleague” and said he hoped her election signaled a new beginning for Democrats and Republicans working together in the chamber.

“Obviously we have some honest differences, but I also respect Leader McCombie’s commitment to those who elected her to serve,” Welch said in a statement.

Welch’s words belie the fact that Democrats don’t need much help from McCombie to get anything done. She takes on a party that was hit hard in the recent election, when House Democrats increased their already sizable 73-45 supermajority to 78-40.

The Illinois Republican Party has alienated many of its traditional, moderate voters because many party members, especially in the southern parts of the state, have embraced far-right ideologies. As the first downstate representative to lead a House Republican since George Ryan 40 years ago, McCombie stressed the need for the GOP to attract new supporters.

“We need to move forward from the last election and talk to independent voters and common sense voters, the people who didn’t show up for us this cycle,” McCombie told the Tribune on Nov. 22. “We have Republicans all over the state, whether it’s in the suburbs or in Chicago. We just need to get them around the table and show them that we support them.”

During her time in the House, McCombie has voted against legislation that promotes gun control and against measures that promote abortion rights, a position shared by most Republicans in the House.

She also joined the Republican opposition to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by Democratic Governor J. B. Pritzker and the sweeping criminal justice reform championed by progressive Democrats known as the SAFE-T Act.

But McCombie has also shown a willingness to work with Democrats for nearly six years years in the House. She has frequently co-sponsored bills with the opposite party, including a bill last year that would have made threatening speech a component of a stalking charge.

And earlier this year, she was the only Republican among 12 House sponsors to advance legislation that would have created a commission to protect the rights of children of incarcerated parents. She has also worked with Democratic lawmakers on issues that promote the safety of child workers.

“She’s shown she can focus on policy and not policy,” said state Rep. Marcus Evans, a Chicago Democrat and assistant House majority leader.

Illinois Republican lawmakers regularly complain that they are being shut out as Democratic supermajorities in both chambers advance their agenda without significant opposition.

But McCombie said it’s a new day for House Republicans and that for her caucus to be productive, it needs to work with Democrats.

“We must be ready to have conversations with them. It’s been a long time since we sat around the table, so, you know, we’re working together to make a difference for Illinois families,” she said. “And the only way we’re going to do that is by working together. And I look forward to meeting with Speaker Welch … to share our vision and hear his thoughts on the next General Assembly.”

McCombie takes over leadership of the House GOP from Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who resigned a day after a disappointing party result. Her election by colleagues signals a shift in Republican power from the Chicago suburbs to the bottom, as Democrats gained power in vote-heavy districts and suburbs.

McCombie entered the House after winning a seat that was part of the Democratic Party’s veto-free supermajority. A former mayor of Savannah, a Mississippi River city of about 2,800, she defeated two-term Democratic state Rep. Mike Smiddy of Hillsdale in 2016.

Democrats drew the district in 2011 with the intention of keeping it blue, but the “dynamics of change” have turned it red, said state Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican who led the 2016 House GOP campaign.

“I think the Democrats have philosophically bypassed this district, and Tony has done a good job, I think, of identifying with the district,” said Butler, the assistant GOP House leader who is leaving the Legislature in January. “And I think certainly in 2016 when (former President Donald) Trump was at the (top of) the ticket and won, and so I think that was a help in those kind of districts, blue collar districts that really weren’t was in the republican column for a long time.”

A staunch critic of the Pritzker administration’s handling of the state’s child welfare system, McCombie pushed for legislation to improve public safety for state Department of Children and Family Services workers.

Earlier this year, McCombie co-sponsored several DCFS-related bills, including a proposal to allow agency officers to carry concealed handguns while investigating abuse and neglect cases. She also pushed for the reinstatement of the death penalty for those 18 and older who kill a DCFS employee, police officers and other first responders. Not a single bill went anywhere.

More successful was a bipartisan bill she supported in the House that would have allowed the families of DCFS workers to receive government benefits when workers died in the line of duty. The bill, which Pritzker signed, was passed after DCFS employee Deidre Silas was stabbed to death during a home visit in central Illinois in January.

McCombie pushed for legislation that would make the punishment for assaulting DCFS employees the same as for assaulting a firefighter or police officer. This bill was inspired by the 2017 death of Pamela Sue Knight, a DCFS employee who was severely beaten while trying to take custody of a 2-year-old boy in western Illinois. She died of her injuries the following year.

A Tribune analysis in 2017 found that Knight was one of at least a dozen DCFS employees who had been assaulted or seriously threatened since 2013 when they entered homes to protect children or investigate allegations of abuse.

Knight’s bill passed 112-0 in the House, but it wasn’t enough to win over Senate Democrats who have resisted codifying tougher penalties in recent years. Republican Rep. Tom Demer of Dixon, who worked with McCombie on the bill, recalled how she worked to get co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle to sign on.

“I’ve just seen, over the course of several years, several sessions, how she’s continuously, continuously pushed and fought to get this bill passed,” said Demer, the deputy leader of the House Republicans, who is also leaving the Legislature in January after as an unsuccessful bet of the state treasurer. “She also got people on both sides to put their names on the bill to sign and support it, doing this just shoehorning in legislation, getting out there and talking to people about why the bill was needed and earning their support. on it.”

After gaining leadership, McCombie said she hopes she can finally see Knight’s law through to the finish line.

“You know, as a leader, I could get this bill passed now. So we’ve been fighting for Pam Knight for a long time. We got it done in the House and it’s dying in the Senate,” McCombie said.

Two months after the 2019 House debate on Welch’s community board diversity bill, he brought a new version to a vote, which was amended in the Senate. This time the bill was supported by McCombie.

The updated bill repealed the requirement that boards of directors of publicly traded companies in Illinois include members of a particular race or gender, instead requiring those companies to report on their websites the demographics of their boards of directors and executives, as well as promotion plans diversity in the workplace.

The bill also provides for an annual report on the diversity of Illinois companies to be published by the University of Illinois.

McCombie and another House GOP member praised Welch for the new bill, which Pritzker later signed.

“Not only is this a much better bill, but it’s an example of the good man Representative Welch is,” McCombie said, praising him for embracing different perspectives in the legislation.

“I just want to say that I appreciate you listening to everybody from all over the state and all over the business community, and I just appreciate that you’re always working really hard to make a great bill and do what’s best for the state of Illinois, — she said.

Welch was touched by the compliments from across the aisle.

“They make me blush,” he said just before the amendment passed the House 105-0.



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