Kelly Wins Fierce Contest to Lead the Illinois Democratic Party in Upset

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Chicago) was elected the new chair of the Illinois Democratic Party on Wednesday evening, becoming the first Black person and first woman elected to lead the state party into a new era after the resignation of Michael Madigan. 

Kelly’s narrow victory with 52% of the vote was a defeat for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who backed Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader and a veteran South Side politician.

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Kelly, a five-term member of Congress, was elected party chair by the Democratic State Central Committee, which has one man and one woman from Illinois’ 18 congressional districts. Each member had a share of the vote based on how many Democratic ballots were cast in their districts during the March 2020 primary election. 

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, backed Kelly, splitting from U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who joined Pritzker in backing Harris. 

Kelly also had the support of U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Chicago) who endorsed her after his first pick for the job — state Sen. Cristina Castro — dropped out of the contest for party chair. Garcia said Kelly would ensure that the Illinois Democratic Party would lock down the state’s growing Latino population – especially in the politically shifting Chicago suburbs. Castro and Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd Ward) also backed Kelly.

Lightfoot was neutral in the race, refusing to pick between Harris and Kelly, who was one of very few elected officials to endorse Lightfoot in the first round of the 2019 mayoral election. 

Casting his ballot by proxy, Madigan voted for Harris, suffering one more defeat after being forced from office by scandal. 

The contest was roiled in its final days by concerns that Kelly could be “ineligible” to serve as party chair because as a federal elected official, she would be prohibited by federal election laws from raising or spending money for state or local races.  

Kelly’s operation fired back with its own legal opinion calling that conclusion false, but acknowledging that her fundraising efforts would be curtailed by federal law. However, Kelly said she always planned to overhaul “the autocratic model” imposed by Madigan on the state party. Instead, Kelly promised to create a “more inclusive decision making model” that would ensure she complied with federal law. 

Much of the debate during the virtual meeting to elect a party chair centered on questions about Kelly’s ability to raise money for state or local races. Kelly dismissed those concerns. 

Former Senate President John Cullerton, a member of the committee, said the bulk of the party chair’s job is to raise funds and the election of Kelly could complicate that effort. 

“The Republicans are going to have a field day with this,” Cullerton said. “It is something that we can’t ignore.” 

Cullerton suggested that Harris and Kelly split the job, with Harris raising funds for state and local races and Kelly serving as the party’s public leader. 

“This is a quagmire,” Cullerton said. 

Kelly rejected his offer. 

Kelly vowed to operate the party with “greater transparency” and develop a “deep bench” in all of the state’s 102 counties. 

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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