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Kelly barred from raising money for state elections — but does FEC ruling encourage ‘more voices’ or muffle hers?

“What we’re doing in this advisory opinion is turning the party chairmanship in Illinois into a purely honorary role,” FEC Commissioner Trey Trainor said.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly in March of 2019.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly
Sun-Times file

A little over four months after winning her battle to be Illinois Democratic chair, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly was barred Thursday from raising money for state and local races — a decision one federal election official feared reduces the job to “a purely honorary role.”

In a 5-1 vote, members of the Federal Election Commission upheld language in a draft opinion released last week that would allow a special committee to solicit money for state elections but prohibit Kelly from being engaged in that fundraising or picking the members of that committee.

Federal officeholders are barred from raising or spending money in non-federal elections unless the amount is within limits set under federal campaign finance law. Kelly will be able to raise money for federal campaigns, such as House or Senate races.

FEC Commissioner Trey Trainor expressed concern about the decision.

“Essentially, what we’re doing in this advisory opinion is turning the party chairmanship in Illinois into a purely honorary role, without the power to direct a very large portion of the activities that the Democratic Party of Illinois engages in,” Trainor said.

“My understanding is that Congresswoman Kelly ran on a platform of being more inclusive in the activities that take place in the party in Illinois and now, our very act is excluding Congresswoman Kelly from the very activities that she wanted to be more inclusive in, and I think it is very significant that we are excluding the first African American woman to ever hold this position in Illinois from engaging in those activities.”

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

While Trainor voted to support the ruling, he said it’s “very significant” that the decision is “having this chilling effect, both on First Amendment rights and associational rights in Illinois.”

The sole no vote came from Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who expressed concern about a federal officeholder “who is subject to all of the restrictions and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act as the leader of an organization which would be raising soft money.”

“I believe there are certainly many ways that the congresswoman could serve her party and be actively involved in most aspects of its activities, and I certainly applaud her efforts to increase the diversity of viewpoints that are represented within the party, but I’m just not going to be able to vote yes,” Weintraub said.

In a statement, Kelly, who took over as chair in March from embattled, longtime party chief Mike Madigan, said the FEC’s decision “affirms” her plan to include members in “all aspects of the party.”

“Today’s FEC advisory opinion affirms my vision for a new Democratic Party of Illinois that encourages more voices to be involved in all aspects of the party,” the Matteson Democrat said. “As the first woman and first woman of color elected to chair DPI, I believe that a broader coalition of perspectives can only strengthen our party and help us elect more Democrats up and down the ballot.”

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

The state party said it plans to establish a Building Leadership, Unity and Equity Illinois Fundraising Committee that will raise money for state elections. The committee will be in charge of fundraising and spending for the state account.

A legal opinion released days before members chose Kelly to lead the party cast doubt on her eligibility to lead state Democrats because of her inability to raise money for state elections. The attorney who authored the memo went on to advise against selecting a federal officeholder without seeking an advisory opinion from the FEC.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) chats with another alderman during a Chicago City Council meeting last month.
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) chats with another alderman during a Chicago City Council meeting last month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

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

After Kelly bested Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), 51.7% to 48.3%, in March, the party sought the opinion of the Federal Election Commission on Kelly’s role as chair in April and outlined options including a special committee.

Kelly supporters have argued the FEC ruling is a win, since it allows her to serve as chair while empowering others members of the party to handle what she cannot.

But Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who supported Harris in March, has questioned where the anticipated ruling would leave the party.

“Where do we go from here? I don’t know,” the Maywood Democrat said Wednesday.

“I guess we’ve got some decisions to make.”