After a closely contested race, Rep. Robin Kelly has been elected as the new chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, narrowly edging out Chicago’s 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris.
Kelly, who serves on the committee from the 2nd district that she has represented in Congress since 2013, edged out Harris by just over 3% in the weighted vote, with 36 members of the Central Committee casting ballots on Wednesday night.
In her acceptance remarks, Kelly says she is looking to unite a party that was closely divided on the issue over which candidate should lead, saying that the party is at its best when it has "vigorous debate" over its future.
"I look forward to working collaboratively with you as we strengthen our party and work together to build a bench across our 102 counties," Kelly said in a statement.
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Kelly also alluded to the work ahead, saying that January's storming of the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump served as a wake-up call for what the party is up against.
"If we are going to preserve, protect and defend the government of the people, by the people and for the people, we must change. We must fight back," Kelly said in a statement after her victory. "We must take on the big lie, the insurrectionists, the Fox News, the QAnon head on. And with your help, the same Illinois party that elected the first African-American Woman to the United States Senate, sent the first African American President to the White House, and had so many other firsts, will lead the way once again."
She will now ascend to the role held for more than 20 years by former Illinois State Rep. Michael Madigan, who also resigned his seat in the house after stepping down as Speaker earlier this year.
Kelly is now the first Black woman to be elected to lead the party, according to her office.
The State Central Committee consists of two members from each of Illinois’ 18 U.S. House districts. Each of the 36 members received a weighted vote based on the number of votes cast in their district during the 2020 Democratic primary in the state.
Kelly had received the support of several prominent politicians, including U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Harris had received support from Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, but ultimately Kelly prevailed in the tight race.
Kelly represents the 2nd District, which includes parts of Chicago and southern suburbs in Cook, Will and Kankakee counties. Previously, she served in the Illinois House and was chief of staff to former State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.
Kelly says that she is ready to get to work, and that the party is starting out from a position of strength as she ascends to the top job.
"My friends, we start from a position of strength," she said. "Illinoisans have trusted us with the Governorship, both US Senators and every State-wide office. We have not just majorities but supermajorities in both legislative houses. We made and continue to make strong progressive gains throughout the State. But we know we need to do more if we are going to protect these gains and build upon them. Together, we can move our democratic party forward."
"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.
The vote took place after a memo was circulated Monday, which raised questions about Kelly's eligibility for the job.
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.