‘Whose title is it anyways?’ Kelly leads DPI while documents list Yarbrough as party chair

Tillis-Cunningham Debate

Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., removes her face mask and speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — More than a month after the Democratic Party of Illinois elected Congresswoman Robin Kelly as the new chair of the party, her name still does not appear on official organizing documents at the state or federal levels while attorneys seek input from the Federal Election Commission.

The new party leaders did file updated documents to report Michael Dorf had taken over as treasurer, but did not report Kelly’s new role. The curious omission reveals how carefully the Congresswoman’s team is reviewing the fine print in election laws to avoid attracting any scrutiny from federal authorities.

Instead, state campaign records list Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough as the chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. Yarbrough took over the role from former chairman Michael Madigan on an interim basis while the party leaders in the State Central Committee staged an election between Kelly and Chicago Alderman Michelle Harris. Kelly narrowly won by one vote, overcoming objections from the Harris camp that a sitting member of Congress could not run a state party and control its fundraising or spending decisions without running afoul of federal campaign finance laws.

Before Kelly was elected, election attorneys at Perkins Coie, a high-powered law firm with several Democratic clients, issued a legal memo warning that members of Congress could not “establish, finance, maintain or control” a state party apparatus without violating FEC guidelines. The memo also warned members of Congress would have to adhere to the stricter federal fundraising limits, capping how much “soft money” the state party could raise from outside groups like labor unions.

During a virtual video conference call on March 3rd, former Senate President and State Central Committeeman John Cullerton warned that if the party elected a member of Congress to run the state party, that “the Republicans are going to have a field day with this,” and “donors are going to be investigated by the Federal Election Commission.”

Kelly persuaded her colleagues that she could serve as chair without violating federal election laws, and appealed to their collective sense of duty to raise money as a team. State and federal laws have different requirements for how campaigns and political parties can raise money and must disclose their donors.

“The State Central Committee controls two political funds, a federal fund and a state fund,” said Hanah Jubeh, a spokesperson for Rep. Kelly. “We have updated the statements of organization for each fund listing Mike Dorf as treasurer. Vice-chair Karen Yarbrough remains listed as the chairman of our state fund, something that is permitted under the State Central Committee bylaws, while our lawyers review our structure to ensure compliance with all state and federal campaign finance laws.”

State law requires political committees to file amended documents of organization within 10 days of electing new officers, but a spokesperson at the State Board of Elections said the agency lacked the authority to enforce that deadline with any real penalties.

“There’s no [state] prohibition on a member of Congress being chair of a committee,” Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said. “But there’s also no requirement that the state party chair be chair of the committee.”

Kelly’s advisors have hired attorneys at Holland and Knight law firm to seek out an advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission to find the proper guardrails before they officially file the paperwork to name Kelly as party chair.

Meanwhile, as lawyers try to find a legal workaround to install Kelly as the head of the party on paper, the logistical and organizational transition of the party is already well underway.

“We’ve got I think 60 to 70 people involved in these transition committees,” Democratic State Central Committeeman Bill Houlihan said on Thursday. “People all across the state are working on six different committees, and they are submitting reports to Robin Kelly,” he said.

The transition team plans to hold a conference call tonight to discuss their findings.

“I’m very happy with the way things are going,” Houlihan said. “There are a lot of people involved from bylaws, to finance, to vote builder data usage.”

Once the party establishes its new framework, Houlihan said Kelly plans to continue a more visible presence than her predecessor, and said she’ll “go on the road and talk to groups of voters.”

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