Pritzker wins state party leadership battle after U.S. Rep. Kelly exits, clearing path for governor’s choice

The issue is whether a federal office holder should be the state party chair, because federal rules limit the ability of a member of Congress to do substantial fundraising for state level races. “If you look over the last 16 months, you see it hasn’t worked,” Pritzker said Friday, before Kelly opted out of the race.

SHARE Pritzker wins state party leadership battle after U.S. Rep. Kelly exits, clearing path for governor’s choice
US. Rep. Robin Kelly speaks at a news conference earlier this week as, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others listen.

US. Rep. Robin Kelly speaks at a news conference earlier this week as, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others listen.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The day before a showdown vote she was destined to lose, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly on Friday withdrew her bid for a second term as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, clearing the way for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to install his pick to lead the party, state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez.

“I was elected as the first woman and the first Black chair of the DPI because of my vision for an inclusive, diverse, and people-first party,” Kelly, of Matteson, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it has become clear that support for my re-election as chair will come up just shy of the necessary majority. Therefore, I have decided to withdraw my name from consideration for chair.

“Serving as chair has been a true honor, and I could not be more proud of my staff, my supporters, and all Democrats across the state who joined in building a stronger DPI.”

Hernandez will become the first Hispanic to lead the state Democratic party when the 34 members of the party’s state central committee — two from each of the 17 congressional districts in Illinois — meet to select the party chair Saturday in Springfield.

The Cicero Democrat is an assistant majority leader in the Illinois House who joined the chamber in January 2007, representing the 24th District. Prior to becoming a member of the Illinois General Assembly, Hernandez worked for Pat Quinn as a senior policy adviser when he was the lieutenant governor.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, left, speaks to reporters last month; State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, right, speaks during a news conference in 2020.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, left, speaks to reporters on Tuesday; State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, right, speaks during a news conference in 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Hernandez also spent 17 years with Cicero Public School District 99, where she managed the district’s educational grant program.

The battle over the party chair — which has split usual allies — started in 2021 when the now indicted former state House Speaker Mike Madigan resigned the chairmanship he had held since 1998 and Kelly was elected to fill the rest of his term.

On March 2, 2021, Kelly, backed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, beat Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), supported by Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., with 51.7% of the weighted vote to Harris’’ 48.3%.

Kelly’s tenure is marked by the state party engaging with the Democratic National Committee — something Madigan shunned — and being more inclusive. Kelly is close to DNC chair Jaime Harrison; it remains to be seen if Pritzker’s power play hurts Chicago’s chances to host the 2024 convention or the Illinois bid to be an early primary state.

Flanked by Illinois elected officials and supporters, Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison speaks during a news conference on the Near West Side Tuesday morning.

Flanked by Illinois elected officials and supporters, Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison speaks during a news conference on the Near West Side Tuesday morning.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

In her statement, Kelly said under her leadership, “the DPI has taken dramatic steps forward by modernizing our party operations, developing new and impactful programming, and re-engaging with the national Democratic Party in a way not seen in decades. Simply put, our party has made amazing progress in a short amount of time.”

The issue in 2021 — and now — is whether a federal office holder should be the state party chair, because federal rules limit the ability of a member of Congress to do substantial fundraising for state level races. Kelly is subject to strict fundraising rules and contribution caps that restrict her ability when it comes to raising and spending funds for non-federal candidates.

Kelly’s allies said they devised — using Federal Election Commission legal guidance they requested — various ways for Kelly to function as state chair while avoiding legal problems, but that arrangement did not satisfy Pritzker.

At an unrelated news conference Friday, Pritzker was asked about the party chair contest, before Kelly dropped out of the race.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Pritzker said that federal rules that bar Kelly from raising funds for state-level candidates have limited the party’s fund-raising potential.

“If you look over the last 16 months, you see it hasn’t worked,” Pritzker said.

Kelly quitting the contest ends a contentious battle by Pritzker and his team to take control of the party. Pritzker donated at least $350,000 to candidates running for party posts.

Last Friday, the Sun-Times reported that Hernandez was recruited by Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s chief of staff, and Pritzker campaign manager Mike Ollen, in a move supported by Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch, D-Hillside.

Hernandez was elected to be a member of the state central committee on June 28, so she will be leading an organization she is just joining. Kelly rejected an offer for Hernandez to be chair with Kelly having a smaller role.

State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero, celebrates the passage of a bill that would close detention centers and prevent law enforcement from inquiring on immigration status in 2021.

State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, D-Cicero, celebrates the passage of a bill that would close detention centers and prevent law enforcement from inquiring on immigration status in 2021.

Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

Kelly’s potential vote count was hobbled Friday when four state central committee members — who called themselves the “Latino Coalition” — endorsed Hernandez. The four are U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia; state Rep. Delia Ramirez, the Democratic nominee for the 3rd Congressional District; and state Senators Cristina Castro, and Omar Aquino.

In a joint statement they said, “We believe we must strengthen and deepen our commitment to building a long-term vision for our party. This includes a substantive effort to expand our base and broaden our engagement of voters in our state, especially in all underserved communities particularly, the Latino community.”

Aides had given assurances to committee members that Pritzker would provide millions of dollars in funding for the state party, which would then trickle down to candidates in other races.

Kelly’s aides told committee members that having Pritzker in charge of the state party would put one man in control, just like the 23 years the party was led by Madigan.

Durbin said in a statement, “Kelly made history as the first African American woman to chair the Illinois Democratic Party. Her challenge was not just to build a Democratic team, but to move from one man rule to a diverse leadership reflecting our party. She worked hard, and I was proud to back her re-election.” He saidHernandez “has always been a friend. I wish her well, and I look forward to working with her.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to the media following a discussion with UIC Law students in March.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin speaks to the media following a discussion with UIC Law students in March.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times file

Kelly’s departure caps a week of countless calls to line up votes, conversations with reporters to smooth out the perceived drama and public statements blasting each side.

The battle included an accusation of racism by Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller. Amid accusations that Kelly, as a federally elected official, couldn’t properly fundraise for the state party organization, Miller said she was “mindful of the dog whistles used to raise legal questions about the first African American and first woman to lead the Democratic Party of Illinois.”

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush’s endorsement of Hernandez signaled that Pritzker’s team had prevailed over Rush, who is not seeking another term — making it easier for him to break with members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were pulling for Kelly.

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