Members of the Democratic Party of Illinois' State Central Committee will meet Wednesday to select the party's first new chair in more than 20 years following longtime leader and former House Speaker Michael Madigan's resignation from the role last week.
But dueling legal memos sent to committee members on Monday raised new questions about the race to lead the party just days before the scheduled vote.
The State Central Committee consists of two members from each of Illinois' 18 U.S. House districts. Each of the 36 members gets a weighted vote in the selection of the next party chair based on the number of votes cast in their district in the most recent Democratic primary election in March 2020. A candidate needs a simple majority, or 50% plus one, of the weighted vote to be elected chair.
Two candidates remain in the running: Chicago's 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris, who serves on the committee from the 1st District, and Rep. Robin Kelly, who serves on the committee from the 2nd District that she represents in Congress.
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A third candidate, state Sen. Cristina Castro, who is also on the committee from the 8th District, removed herself from contention on Sunday and announced alongside two other Latino elected officials who serve on the committee - Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Chicago Ald. Silvana Tabares - that they would back Kelly's bid.
Of the 36 people on the committee, it appeared as of Monday that 14 members who hold roughly one-third of the weighted vote had yet to make any sort of statement indicating their support.
Of the 22 who had publicly backed a candidate, Harris seemed to have an edge in the campaign to take the leadership role, with about 44% of the vote to Kelly's 22% - but those figures were based solely on public statements and leaves Harris short of the 50% threshold needed.
Harris - who Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot tapped as her floor leader last month - chairs the City Council's Rules Committee. She has been a member of City Council since 2006, representing portions of the city's South Side like South Shore, Chatham, Calumet Heights and more. The same day Madigan resigned, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Sen. Tammy Duckworth announced their support for Harris to be the next leader of the party.
"As our nation moves on from the chaos of the Trump years and our state begins charting a brighter path forward under new legislative leadership, the next leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois must continue the progress we’ve made by supporting Democratic candidates who will help working families at the local, state and federal levels equally," Pritzker and Duckworth said in a joint statement. "We believe Alderman Michelle Harris is best qualified to lead our party forward in the years ahead and are hopeful the State Central Committee will select her to serve as the next Party Chair."
While neither Pritzker nor Duckworth serve on the committee, they are two of just eight officials elected statewide in Illinois and hold considerable pull in the party. They are also likely to be at the top of the ticket in the 2022 election cycle, though neither has officially announced a reelection campaign. Pritzker's backing is particularly important, as the first-term governor - a billionaire member of the Hyatt Hotel-founding Pritzker family, who poured $171 million into his own 2018 campaign - has given millions to DPI as well and is poised to continue his role one of the party's biggest benefactors as he seeks a second term.
Pritzker said Friday that he had been calling members of the committee to share why he supported Harris but noted that he would support the party no matter who wins the chairmanship.
"I've been a Democrat my whole life and have supported Democrats all across the country and right here in the state of Illinois. There's nothing that's gonna stop me from supporting Democrats," he said.
Pritzker and Duckworth's support for Harris puts them at odds with Sen. Dick Durbin, who announced his support for Kelly nearly immediately after Madigan resigned. Kelly also got the backing of Reps. Sean Casten, Mike Quigley, Brad Schneider, Jan Schakowsky and Bill Foster on Monday, who all announced their endorsement together but do not serve on the committee.
Kelly has represented the 2nd District, which includes parts of Chicago and southern suburbs in Cook, Will and Kankakee counties, since 2013. Previously, she served in the Illinois House and was chief of staff to former State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
"Robin spent twenty years in Peoria. She’s traveled to every corner of Illinois as a statewide candidate. And she represents a district that’s urban, suburban, and rural," Durbin said in a statement.
"Her experience in Congress, the state legislature, and managing an Illinois constitutional office afford her a breadth of important experience and skill sets. I cannot think of a better person to lead Democrats moving forward in Illinois," he continued, calling Harris a friend and thanking her for her candidacy.
In an unrelated joint appearance with Pritzker on Friday, Durbin said there was no "family feud" in their difference of opinion.
"All three can lead our party effectively," Durbin said, at a time when Castro was still in the running. "We may have a difference of opinion on which may be the better among them. But there is, I think, common belief that all three are excellent."
But on Monday, a memo from outside counsel that DPI's acting Chair Karen Yarbrough forwarded to members of the committee raised questions about Kelly's eligibility, as first reported by Capitol Fax. The memo from Perkins Coie LLP attorney Brian Svoboda says that the party asked about circumstances in which a federal officeholder - like Kelly, who is not mentioned by name in the memo - can serve as chair of DPI. His findings and recommendations prompted Kelly to send committee members a memo in response in which a separate legal firm found "no legal obstacle" to her serving as the party's chair.
"Federal law 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" as the party does, the first memo from Perkins Coie LLP reads.
It recommends that in order for a federal officeholder to serve as the party's chair, that person would either need to resign from federal office, DPI would have to stop raising and spending funds outside federal regulations or the party would need to "curtail" the chair's powers so that he or she does not finance or control DPI, noting that the last would turn the chairmanship into essentially an "honorary role."
State campaign finance records show that Pritzker's gubernatorial campaign committee has paid Perkins Coie LLP more than $2.6 million for legal services since 2017, with another $116,000 paid to the firm by Pritzker's committee pushing for the graduated tax amendment that voters ultimately rejected in the November election. FEC records show several other Democratic-affiliated campaigns and organizations have also hired Perkins Coie LLP over the years, including the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emily's List and several U.S. senators, among others.
In response to that memo, Kelly sent a separate memo to committee members from attorney Michael Dorf, who wrote, "there is no legal obstacle to Congresswoman Robin Kelly serving as Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois."
Dorf wrote that he has worked with Svoboda and respects his work but said he believed Svoboda "has not been given all the relevant facts by his client and therefore some of his conclusions may be misguided."
Dorf said DPI controls three accounts: a federal account subject to FEC guidelines, a nonfederal account under Illinois law and a hybrid account. He wrote that he believed policies "can be constructed" to permit Kelly to serve as chair that would include the delegation of some spending authority as well as "firewalls" for some activities so that she would not be controlling decision making.
"Your ability to raise funds for use in state and local elections will be limited, but your ability to ascend the 'bully pulpit' to advocate for Democratic policies, principles, and candidates on behalf of DPI should not be impinged," Dorf wrote.
He noted that her campaign to become chair has included a "rejection of the autocratic model that has constituted DPI’s governance for many years" in a seemingly veiled reference to Madigan, who as chair focused the party's efforts almost exclusively on protecting his majority in the Illinois House, and thus, his speakership. Kelly wrote in her message to committee members that she planned to lead the party with an "inclusive, team-approach to all decisions that involve the party’s finances."
Madigan served as chair of the party from 1998 through his resignation late last month. He was previously speaker of the Illinois House for all but two years since 1983, making him the longest serving statehouse speaker in U.S. history. He began to lose support from the Democratic caucus to retain the powerful post last year after being implicated in a deferred prosecution agreement with ComEd in which the utility admitted to arranging jobs and payments for associates of an elected official, referred to only as "Public Official A," for nearly a decade in exchange for legislation favorable to the company.
Court documents identified "Public Official A" as speaker of the Illinois House, a description that fit only Madigan. He has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing and has repeatedly denied the allegations laid out by prosecutors.
Still, multiple indictments connected to the case in November, including of a longtime Madigan confidant, prompted several Democrats to publicly announce they would not back Madigan for another term in the post. In January, Democrats elected Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch the chamber's first new leader in decades. One month after losing the gavel, Madigan resigned his statehouse seat, then his position as state party chair, retaining only his roles on the State Central Committee and as 13th Ward Democratic committeeman.
Wednesday's meeting of the State Central Committee will take place virtually at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast via livestream, a spokeswoman for the party said.