A revealing fight to lead Illinois Democrats

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Kelly is the obvious big winner, having narrowly defeated Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th, the City Council floor leader for Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But let me start with the biggest loser: Pritzker.

The first-term governor pulled out all the stops to get the job for Harris. He worked the phones on her behalf even before then-Chairman Mike Madigan announced his resignation, flexed a bit of muscle with those who needed to follow his lead, publicly implied that Democratic candidates might not have his financial help if they crossed him and rejected advice that securing votes on the state’s Democratic Central Committee was no sure thing.

Pritzker, and his team, failed. And as gleeful Illinois Republicans immediately pointed out, coming up short is starting to become a habit for Team Pritzker, which backed the losing horse for Illinois Senate president last year, lost the graduated income-tax amendment in November and has been unable to pass a crucial loophole closer through the General Assembly.

All of that sends the wrong message to a legislature that has new leaders of both chambers and may be feeling its oats. Weakness never works in politics. Pritkzer already has amplified his team by bringing in former state Sen. Andy Manar but may need to do more. Says one ally, “They need to do better at expanding the group of people they listen to.”

On the opposite side of that fight was Durbin.

In Washington, he’s still the No. 2 Senate Democrat and now chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee—the first time he’s been a chairman in his lengthy career. Now, in Illinois, with Madigan gone, he’s arguably the most influential Democrat in the state, having worked his own network big-time to line up votes for Kelly.

Not bad for a guy who some other politicians had begun to suggest was in the sunset years of his career.

The beneficiary of the above is Kelly. Combined with her own considerable talents and ties—and a strong message that it was time for Illinois Democrats to end the days of tight central control—Kelly had the critical mass to win this ultimate game of inside baseball.

Now she’ll be free to travel from Cairo to Chicago to Moline, selling the glories of the Democratic Party—and herself. If indeed Durbin plans to retire from the Senate after his term is up in 2024, Kelly becomes the immediate front-runner.

One other development of note that arose during the chairmanship scrum: the changing nature of how politicians fund their races.

Pritzker suggested the party is dependent on him. Others argued that Kelly, as a federal official, might not legally be able to raise the huge amounts of money needed to support Democratic candidates, most of it traditionally from labor unions.

Well, guess what? Even Harris indicated that the new chair’s job is to move local fund-raising toward a digital, mass-participation model, much like the stunningly successful Act Blue model that bankrolled Democratic congressional candidates in the past couple of cycles. Kelly immediately seconded that notion. And if most of the money comes from individuals, not organized labor, labor’s ability to call shots in the Legislature will be weakened, perhaps seriously.

Of course, such a development would boost the influence of the party’s progressive grassroots network. That could be a mixed blessing. 

Other observations: Both of the candidates for chair are African-American women. My how things change. And sitting out the fray was Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, this in a state where the mayor of Chicago for many decades calls many and some times most of the shots.

However it works out, change is on the way for Illinois Democrats. Kelly heads a party that already controls both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, every statewide constitutional office and 13 of 18 congressional seats and has super-majorities in both the state House and Senate. We’ll see how she does.

via Crain’s Chicago Business

March 4, 2021 at 01:45PM

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