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How Rep. Robin Kelly won the Democratic Party of Illinois chair

Kelly was elected to only fill the remaining year in Mike Madigan’s term as chair. There will be another election for chair after the March, 2022, primary.

Rep. Robin Kelly, the new chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — With a high-stakes head fake, Rep. Robin Kelly won the 10-day campaign to replace scandalized Mike Madigan as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, the first new leader in 23 years.

Kelly beat Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) 51.7% to 48.3% in the Wednesday night balloting among the 36-members of the party’s state central committee. This first-in-generations power change in the party turned into a proxy battle between Sen. Dick Durbin, with Kelly, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, up for reelection in 2022, supporting Harris.

I asked Kelly in an interview Thursday if this family fight left rifts between the top Democrats in Illinois.

“I look at it as a kind of nothing,” Kelly said, speaking from her home in south suburban Matteson. “We’re just going to get to work and do what we can to elect Democrats up and down the ticket.”

She huddled with the five-member DPI staff Thursday.

Kelly told me her priorities include a party audit; figuring out ways to get more people to participate; and devising a management structure to erect legal guardrails for what became the biggest issue against her: Kelly, a federal official, is subject to very strict fundraising rules and will not be allowed to raise or control money to use in state races.

Kelly also told me that for the first time in decades, Illinois Democrats will participate fully in Democratic National Committee activities.

Madigan famously wanted nothing to do with the DNC — to the point of not attending the 2018 national DNC meeting in Chicago.

She also wants regular meetings with the leaders of the other main Democratic political shops in Illinois: state Senate President Don Harmon; new House Speaker Chris Welch; and Kristina Zahorik, chair of the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association. Harmon and Welch oversee the state House and Senate political operations; Zahorik runs an influential statewide organization.

Takeaways:

One year: Little noticed is that Kelly was elected to only fill the remaining year in Madigan’s term as chair. There will be another election for chair after the March 15, 2022, primary. State central committee members will be up for election in that primary.

All this to say that Kelly could well be a transitional figure. With Madigan gone — and this is healthy — internal fights to be party chair may become routine.

And if Kelly falters on the fundraising front because of the restrictive rules, there will be a chance for a change before the November 2022 general election with the reelection of Pritzker and Duckworth at stake.

The Harris team major gambit impact: The release of a legal opinion on March 1 from the Harris team underscoring Kelly’s fundraising handcuffs packed a punch.

Multiple Kelly backers among the committee members did not want to go public, so the public tallies seemed to give Harris momentum. The P.R. stemming from the legal opinion was not favorable for Kelly. The Kelly team worried.

The successful head fake: Time was not on Kelly’s side. Some Kelly support was soft. They needed the campaign to end. They found nine committee members to call a March 6 meeting for a chair vote. They counted on people figuring they had the votes locked in when they knew they had fence sitters. They were surprised that the Harris team moved up the vote up to Wednesday. The bluff worked.

Kelly’s winning strategy was crafted by, she said, political consultant Hanah Jubeh and Greg Bales, the manager of Durbin’s 2020 reelection campaign. Others on the team included John Moore, Kelly’s political director; Ben Head, political chief for Rep. Jan Schakowsky; attorney Mike Dorf; state central committee members Mike Cabonargi, Iris Martinez and Bill Houlihan; and longtime operatives Doug Price and Michael Jordan.

The backstory backstory: Here’s what I pieced together. Duckworth and Durbin had both called early on for Madigan to step down as state House Speaker and DPI chair. Madigan announced his party resignation on Feb. 22.

Before that, Duckworth launched conversations with Durbin and Pritzker about who should replace Madigan. Duckworth wanted a unity candidate. There was agreement it was time for a woman of color to be the chair.

The three agreed on Harris not realizing that Kelly would be interested. Kelly told me she held back because there was no official vacancy. She jumped in immediately after Madigan stepped down. Durbin ended up backing Kelly.

This was curious, said Kelly: Some calls for Harris started going out from the Pritzker and Duckworth camp before Madigan’s Feb. 22 announcement.

Said Kelly, “I didn’t realize things were moving so fast.”