New Dem Party chair to get no seat at table for state fund raising? FEC expected to rule on Kelly role Thursday

Carol Ronen, a Democratic state central committee who supported U.S. Rep Robin Kelly’s bid to lead the party, predicted the FEC ruling would leave Democrats “pleased.” But Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who supported a rival candidate, suggested, “We’ve got some decisions to make.”

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U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly speaks at a rally for home care workers represented by the Service Employees International Union rally in Federal Plaza on Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly speaks at a rally for home care workers represented by the Service Employees International Union rally in Federal Plaza on Tuesday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

The newly minted chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois won’t be able to personally raise money for state races or have a hand in picking members of a committee tasked with doing so, if members of the Federal Election Commission uphold language in a draft opinion they’re expected to discuss Thursday.

In that draft released last week, members of the commission concluded that while a special committee may raise funds for the party’s non-federal campaign fund, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly — who took over as chair in March from embattled, longtime party chief Mike Madigan — can’t be involved in that process.

And the Matteson Democrat must have “no role in the appointment of any member of the special committee,” according to the opinion.

Kelly’s name, and title as chair, also can’t be included on any letterhead soliciting non-federal campaign funds. The Federal Election Commission is scheduled to discuss the draft, and likely issue a ruling, at its meeting Thursday.

A spokeswoman for the party said in a statement “we believe the draft opinion is consistent with the encouraging discussion the Commissioners held earlier and we’re hopeful it’s what they will discuss tomorrow.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., listens during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill last year.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., listens during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill last August.

Tom Williams/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

“We believe the draft opinion upholds the Chairwoman’s vision for a more inclusive party,” the spokeswoman said.

Federal office holders are barred from raising or spending funds in non-federal elections — unless the amount is within limits set under federal campaign finance law.

Kelly would still be able to raise money for federal campaigns, such as congressional or U.S. Senate races.

The party sought the opinion of the Federal Election Commission on Kelly’s role as chair in April and outlined options designed to comply with federal campaign finance laws.

One option was a special committee for state, local and other non-federal fundraising that keeps Kelly out of the loop.

Carol Ronen, a former state legislator and member of the Democratic state central committee who supported Kelly in her bid to lead the party, viewed the draft opinion as a win for the congresswoman and said party members should be “pleased.”

Former state Sen. Carol Ronen.

Former state Sen. Carol Ronen.

Provided

Democrats knew when they selected Kelly there’d be “some parameters about her not being able to raise state money” and they proposed a solution that the election commission looks poised to accept, said Ronen, who represents the North Side and north suburban 9th Congressional District for the party.

But Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who supported a rival candidate for chair in her party role representing the city and west suburban 7th Congressional District, said the draft opinion is “what I anticipated.”

“Nothing new here — I anticipated this to come down this way. ... Where do we go from here? I don’t know,” the Maywood Democrat said. “Our members decided that they wanted to do this this way, and we’ll deal with [Kelly’s state fundraising] later.”

Now is that time, Yarbrough said.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough in June.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough in June.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“I guess we’ve got some decisions to make,” said Yarbrough, who supported Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) over Kelly in the party leadership battle.

Kelly edged out Harris, 51.65% to 48.35% in the weighted vote of the party’s 36 voting members in March.

Kelly supporter Bill Houlihan, who represents the party in the 18th Congressional District in central Illinois, said under Madigan the party’s coffers were largely used to ensure a Democratic majority in the Illinois House. Now, the funds will be used for much more.

The former longtime aide to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said “other members of the state central committee are going to have to step up and help raise money,”

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, left, last August; Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), right, in February.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, left, last August; Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), right, in February.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia; Pat Nabong /Sun-Times file.

“I’ve got the utmost faith in Robin to do that on the federal side ... and I think if we can boost [the federal fundraising] and at the same time make gains on the state side, I think we’re going to see a statewide party that works for all candidates in Illinois.”

A legal opinion released days before members chose Kelly to lead the party in March cast doubt on her eligibility to lead state Democrats because of her inability to fund raise for state elections.

A spokeswoman for the congresswoman said at the time the “suggestion” that Kelly is “ineligible to be the Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois is false and offensive.”

In the memo, which was sought by Yarbrough as then interim chair, lawyer Brian G. Svoboda concluded that the fund-raising limitations imposed on Kelly “would essentially turn the Chair into a purely honorary role, without power to direct large portions of the DPI’s activities.”

The attorney went on to advise against selecting a federal officeholder without seeking an advisory opinion from the election commission.

Kelly released her own memo from lawyer Michael Dorf conceding the fundraising limitations, but concluding “there is no legal obstacle” to her leading the state party.

Kelly sought to make lemonade, arguing the situation would empower others on the committee.

“I will not only make sure we follow the letter of the law, but have an inclusive, team-approach to all decisions that involve the party’s finances,” she said at the time.

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