Democrats elect Rep. Robin Kelly to run state party operation

Tillis-Cunningham Debate

From left, Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., and Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., pause on the steps of the Capitol as the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives debates impeachment charges against President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL) won a close contest, 52% to 48%, to replace Michael Madigan as Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois on Wednesday night, promising a new day of “transparency and ethical leadership.”

The Democratic State Central Committee livestreamed the nomination process in a virtual Zoom call that delved into the inner workings of the party’s political strategies and fundraising drives ahead of several statewide elections in 2022.

Out of the 36 members, 19 of them elected Kelly over Chicago Alderman Michelle Harris for the job. High profile Democrats like Madigan, former Senate President John Cullerton, Senator Tammy Duckworth, and Governor J.B. Pritzker, backed Harris for the job, but Congressman Chuy Garcia and state senator Cristina Castro tipped the scales in Kelly’s favor over the weekend.

Though Pritzker congratulated Kelly for her win on Twitter, her win was a blow to his efforts to assert more influence over the party as its largest financier.

Kelly rebutted a line of questioning from former Senate President John Cullerton who raised “a major, major problem” with her ability to raise campaign funds for the state party while serving as a sitting member of Congress.

“To be a chairman and not be able to raise money is really a limitation,” Cullerton said, warning that “the Republicans are going to have a field day with this,” and “donors are going to be investigated by the Federal Election Commission.”

“Every memo from every lawyer said I can chair the party,” Kelly responded. “I just have to follow the federal regulations, so it’s not that I can’t raise money at all. That’s simply not true.”

Kelly said the party fundraising duties should fall on everyone’s shoulders, and called on the party to move away from Madigan’s model that largely reserved the party’s funds to protect his majority in the House of Representatives.

“We should have a fundraising committee, and I don’t think this should just be on one person to raise money,” Kelly said. “We’re all a part of the party and whatever people can do, whatever contacts you have, that’s how we grow our [fundraising] list.”

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi dismissed Cullerton’s warnings, noting that members of Congress in Colorado and Georgia also chair their state parties.

“What those states do is set guardrails in place to empower the entire state central committee to make sure that we remain not only in compliance with federal as well as state laws, but also ensure that the entire state central committee has a role and plays a role in the state’s finances,” Cabonargi said. “This is a central committee, and we want to work together.”

Committeewoman Nancy Sheperdson, a delegate to her local labor council, addressed concerns from other members that Kelly’s limitations as chair of the party might cost Democrats access to union contributions.

“The unions believe that there is a way around the difficulty, and that they will be able to give to the Democratic Party, and they’re eager to do so,” she said.

Kelly closed her remarks blowing a kiss to Harris and thanking her for her campaign. Both women pledged to continue working together to help the build the party.

“As Chair, I will bring together a statewide coalition that not only includes long-term party stakeholders, but also engages the grassroots,” Kelly said. “It’s time party leadership reflects the diversity of the state across all demographics and regions.”

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