Robin Kelly takes reins from Mike Madigan, winning Democratic Party chair race: ‘Tonight we made history together.’
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson beat Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) in the hotly contested race to become chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Kelly won 51.7% to 48.3%.
Choosing the first woman and person of color to lead them, Democrats named U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois on Wednesday — despite concerns over limits on her ability to raise and spend funds.
“Tonight we made history together,” Kelly told members of the Democratic State Central Committee. “Thank you so much. I will not disappoint you. And wear your masks.”
Kelly, who is Black, garnered 51.7% of the weighted vote to become chair of the party, narrowly besting Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) during a virtual meeting of members of the state party’s leadership ranks.
Kelly and Harris, who is also Black, thanked each other and promised to work together after the evening vote.
Harris went into the meeting with more committee members publicly supporting her candidacy, but fell short with 48.3% of the total.
In a statement, Harris called Kelly “an esteemed colleague” and said “it is time to move forward and we will do that together.”
The two politicians were in a heated battle for the helm of the state’s Democratic Party after beleaguered former chair Mike Madigan announced his decision to step down late last month.
Madigan did not participate in Wednesday evening’s meeting, giving his votes to a proxy.
Since Madigan stepped down, Kelly and Harris have been vying for support among both their colleagues in the state central committee’s ranks as well as other prominent Democrats.
Harris had the backing of Gov. J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, while Kelly had the support of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Speaker of the U.S. House Nancy Pelosi.
Ahead of the vote, Kelly, 64, who lives in south suburban Matteson, billed herself as having the “qualifications, experience, relationships and vision to lead this party into the future.”
“I have lived downstate and in the Chicagoland area, additionally my district is urban suburban and rural, which gives me the perspective needed to serve all Democrats, no matter what part of the state they come from,” Kelly said. “I understand the issues that Democrats running for office throughout Illinois face because I’ve been there.”
The congresswoman said she’d bring a “multi-faceted” approach to leading the party, including revamping its social media, increasing the party’s focus on small-dollar donations as well as other fundraising efforts to bring money into the party.
Kelly’s ability to raise money was a topic of concern for some members. As an elected federal official, she is barred from fundraising activity in state and local elections.
“I might be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure that everything you said that you would do, you’re not allowed to do by law,” former state Senate President John Cullerton told Kelly during a question-and-answer portion of the Wednesday evening meeting.
“I’m not saying you’re not eligible to be the chairman. You just can’t raise money, and you can’t even spend money,” said Cullerton, a Harris backer. “I don’t even know if you can even delegate it.”
Kelly attempted to reassure members Wednesday that fundraising “is not going to be an obstacle,” after Cullerton said “to be a chairman and not be able to raise money is really a limitation.”
“We have a serious problem,” he said. “The Republicans are going to have a field day with this.”
On Monday, a legal opinion in a memo commissioned by interim state party chair Karen Yarbrough cast doubt on Kelly’s eligibility to lead the party, citing 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.”
Yarbrough had publicly supported Harris’ bid for the post.
Given those rules, lawyer Brian G. Svoboda said for Kelly to serve as chair, 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.
A spokeswoman for Kelly said Monday that the “suggestion” that the congresswoman is “ineligible to be the Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois is false and offensive.”
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.
Kelly’s win is another blow to Pritzker, whose graduated income tax proposal was rejected by voters in November. He congratulated Kelly in a tweet, saying he looks “forward to a successful 2022 election year for Democrats across the state and up and down the ballot.”
Leading that ticket for Democrats will be Duckworth and Pritzker, who both backed Harris.
Illinois Republicans wasted no time expressing their “sympathy” to Pritzker “as he is in the midst of a long string of high-profile political losses. It really is sad.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot also congratulated the new chair. Lightfoot had stayed neutral. Harris is her City Council floor leader, and Kelly backed her mayoral bid. The mayor paid tribute to both, as well as state Sen. Cristina Castro, who dropped out of the race earlier this week.
“The race to fill this seat was at times contentious,” Lightfoot said. “I look forward to helping support Rep. Kelly’s work to build a strong, inclusive Democratic Party of Illinois.”