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‘Inclusive’ or ‘impractical?’ Limits on Kelly’s role in fundraising at issue in race to lead state Democratic Party

The race between Ald. Michelle Harris and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly for chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois heated up with the release of dueling legal memos and concerns from some committee members: ‘Feels like we’re going along on some ride, and we have no idea where we’re going.’

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, left, last August; Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), right, in February.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, left, in August; Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), right, earlier this month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia; Pat Nabong /Sun-Times file.

The race for the reins of the Democratic Party of Illinois heated up on Monday with the release of a legal opinion contending that U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly may be ineligible to serve in the top state party post.

The congresswoman’s team called that “suggestion” both “false and offensive.”

Kelly released her own legal opinion conceding that, as a federal elected official, she would be barred from raising or spending money for state or local campaigns, something the Matteson Democrat suggested would empower other party leaders.

“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 in a statement.

“This is something that’s at the core of how I plan to lead our party.”

The latest exchanges in the fiercely contested race began with the release of a legal opinion in a memo commissioned by the interim chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who has said she is supporting Ald. Michelle Harris to take over the leadership position.

It was released about two days before members are expected to pick a new leader.

In the memo, lawyer Brian G. Svoboda cited federal law that “prohibits a federal officeholder or candidate from directly or indirectly establishing, financing, maintaining or controlling an entity that raises and spends funds outside of federal limits and restrictions in connection with nonfederal elections.”

For Kelly to serve as chair, Svoboda said the congresswoman would need to either resign from her position, the party would need to “cease raising and spending funds outside federal limits and restrictions” or the party would need to “curtail the chair’s duties and powers” to avoid federal limitations.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Pullman National Monument renovation project in September.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Pullman National Monument renovation project in September.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

“While possible in theory, such action is impractical in fact,” Svoboda says in his opinion. “It would essentially turn the Chair into a purely honorary role, without power to direct large portions of the DPI’s activities.”

Svoboda, who handles political law for the international law firm Perkins Coie, went on to warn that even a restricted role would “almost certainly result in a complaint to, and potentially an investigation by,” the Federal Election Commission.

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

The CapitolFax political blog first reported the memo.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Kelly said the “suggestion” that the congresswoman is “ineligible to be the Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois is false and offensive.”

The statement from Kelly’s camp also noted that the Georgia Democratic Party is led by U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams.

Hours later, Kelly released her own memo from lawyer Michael Dorf to committee members saying that while “there is no legal obstacle” to her serving as chair, Kelly would be prevented from “raising or spending” money for the party’s non-federal account, which is for state and local elections.

“We have acknowledged from the beginning of your campaign for DPI Chair that [a section of non-federal election law] would limit the full exercise of powers ordinarily given to the Chair of a party committee,” Dorf said in his memo.

“However, we have also recognized that a fundamental premise of your campaign is the rejection of the autocratic model that has constituted DPI’s governance for many years, and that, instead, you have called for a more inclusive decision making model ... Pursuant to this philosophy of governance, I believe that policies and procedures can be constructed to permit you to serve as Chair within the provisions of federal law.”

The dueling memos are the latest shoes to drop in a heated battle between Kelly and Harris to succeed former chair Mike Madigan, which has pitted U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who is backing the congresswoman, against Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who have thrown their support behind the alderman of the South Side’s 8th Ward.

Ald. Michelle Harris at a City Council meeting in 2016.
Ald. Michelle Harris at a City Council meeting in 2016.
Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

It comes about 48 hours before members of the state Democratic Party — 36 men and women representing the state’s 18 congressional districts — are expected to vote on who they want to lead the party.

The decision to meet virtually Wednesday is also a cause of contention — some committee members called for an in-person meeting on Saturday.

Over the weekend, Kelly scored the endorsements of U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Ald. Silvana Tabares (23rd) and state Sen. Cristina Castro, who dropped her own bid for the post to back the congresswoman. Castro is one of the central committee members representing the 8th Congressional District; Garcia, the 4th Congressional District, and Tabares, the 3rd Congressional District.

State Sen. Cristina Castro last year.
State Sen. Cristina Castro last year.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Harris added former chair Madigan of the 3rd Congressional District, Michael Cudzik of the 8th, Vivian Robinson of the 15th, Tom Walsh of the 16th; Jayne Mazzotti of the 13th, and Don Johnston of the 17th to her slate of endorsements.

Harris has a little over 44% of the weighted vote, and Kelly has nearly 29%. A simple majority is needed to win.

State Rep. Al Riley, of the 2nd Congressional District, and Sheila Stocks Smith, of the 18th Congressional District, said they will support Kelly.

Eleven of the 36 committee members have not taken a public stance in the race and did not return requests for comment.

Thomas Maillard, who represents the 10th Congressional District, told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter he was “not going to discuss” the race for chair or who he supports.

One committee member who has not announced a preference between the two candidates said members fear retaliation if they vote “the wrong way.”

“[It] feels like we’re going along on some ride, and we have no idea where we’re going,” the committee member said.

Members are expected to select their next leader at 6 p.m. Wednesday in a virtual meeting.

Andrew Sullender contributed to this report from Springfield