SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ Democratic State Central Committee elected U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly as its new chair on a razor-thin margin.
Kelly, who lives in suburban Matteson and represents the 2nd Congressional District, edged out Chicago Alderman Michelle Harris with just over 50 percent of the weighted vote of the 36 members of the Central Committee — there are two for each congressional district. The 2nd District spans from the south side of Chicago and its suburbs to south of Kankakee.
Kelly was backed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, while Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth backed Harris. The congresswoman edged out the alderwoman by about 3 percent of the weighted vote.
Kelly is now the first Black woman to be elected chair of the party and the first person who is not Michael Madigan to hold the post since 1998, aside from vice chair Karen Yarbrough, who replaced Madigan on an interim basis after his resignation last month.
Yarbrough presided over the virtual forum Wednesday night in which Kelly received several questions about her ability to raise funds for the party as a sitting member of Congress.
A pair of legal opinions that circulated in the run-up to the Madigan replacement vote stated that Kelly would not be able to raise or distribute “soft money,” which refers to money spent on state and local elections, although she would have no restrictions on fundraising for federal races.
Under Madigan, the Democratic Party of Illinois was one of the main fundraisers for candidates running for the state House.
Several Democratic committee persons, including former Senate President John Cullerton, cited the concerns about fundraising as a reason he could not back Kelly.
“One of the biggest things that state chairman does is raise money. Whether we like it or not, that's one of the things we have to do,” he said. “We have a serious problem — the Republicans are gonna have a field day. … We are going to be investigated by the Federal Elections Commission. The donors who normally would be happy to donate to the Democratic Party are going to be hesitant.”
But committee woman and state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, said Kelly has a vision for what fundraising can become — a mechanism for party building instead of mainly supporting House Democrats.
“It shouldn't be focused on one chamber or the other. It should be a whole state fundraising operation that I would be proud to help with,” she said.
Many pointed to a decentralization of fundraising from what had become a Madigan-focused effort during his two-plus decades controlling the party. Several, including Castro, said a decentralized approach could be better for the party’s brand across the state as political maps trend more red in downstate and rural areas.
Kelly said she does not believe fundraising will be an obstacle.
“We need to support and invest in the infrastructure that enables local parties to be effective in their effort to recruit and elect Democrats,” she said in her pitch to the committee persons. “I have a proven track record that goes beyond campaigning and supporting Democrats up and down to ticket.
"I've raised millions of dollars to support those efforts, not just in Illinois, but across the country.”
She cited her role as congresswoman in an urban, suburban and rural district.
“As chair, I will bring together a statewide coalition that not only includes long-term party stakeholders, but also engages the grassroots,” she said. “It’s time party leadership reflects the diversity of the state across all demographics and regions.”
And she said she is dedicated to “building a bench” of Democratic candidates, saying Democracy is “under siege,” citing her experience of being in the U.S. House chamber when rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“If we are going to preserve, protect and defend the government of the people, by the people and for the people, we must change, we must fight back, we must take on the big lie, the insurrectionists, the Fox News, the QAnons, head on,” she said after being elected chair.
“And with your help, the same Illinois party that elected the first African American woman to the United States Senate, sent the first African American president to the White House, and had so many other firsts, will lead the way.”
Republicans, meanwhile, used the loss of the Pritzker-backed candidate for its post-election messaging, sending a news release stating the party “expresses sympathy” to the governor.
“The Illinois Republican Party would like to provide our sympathies to Governor Pritzker as he is in the midst of a long string of high-profile political losses. It really is sad,” the state GOP said in a news release.
They cited as “losses” the defeat of the graduated income tax, Pritzker’s reported backing of Sen. Kimberly Lightford for Senate president last year — a post that went to Sen. Don Harmon — and the lame duck session defeat of a bill decoupling the state and federal tax code regarding business losses.
Both Harris and Kelly said there would be no hard feelings regardless of result of the vote, and they pledged to work together to support Democratic candidates.