Illinois Democrats face battle over leadership – Chicago Tribune

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As Illinois Democrats move to try to gain a more prominent role in national party affairs, an internal battle has developed over control of the state party.

State Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez of Cicero has emerged as a challenger for the party chairmanship to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson, who was narrowly elected in March 2021 to finish out the term of embattled and now indicted former chairman and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Hernandez is backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose significant wealth has played a major role in the party’s bottom line, while Kelly has the backing of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

The winner will be decided by the Democratic State Central Committee, made up of 17 men and 17 women elected in the June 28 primary in each of the state’s new congressional districts. The panel is scheduled to meet Saturday in Springfield to elect a chair for a four-year term, each member casting a weighted vote based on the number of Democratic ballots cast in their new congressional district.

State Sen. Laura Fine and Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, second right, are seen on the Illinois House floor at the state Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 29, 2020. Hernandez has emerged as a challenger for the party chairmanship to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

The jockeying over the party chairmanship comes as state Democrats seek to host the 2024 presidential nominating convention in Chicago and try to make Illinois an early presidential primary state in the Democratic National Committee’s 2024 campaign calendar.

When Kelly was elected as party chair, concerns were voiced that she would find her fundraising abilities severely diminished because she is a federal officeholder. Federal fundraising rules are more restrictive than state law on how much money can be given and what entities are allowed to donate. Most of the state party’s fundraising activities focus on candidates for state offices.

Under a plan worked out by state party lawyers and approved by the Federal Election Commission, Kelly was isolated from state fundraising matters in favor of a newly created internal committee. Kelly was still allowed to raise money for federal candidates.

But the concerns about her limitations among allies of Pritzker, who backed Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris. 8th, for the chairmanship in March 2021, linger.

Fundraising reports for April through June show the Democratic Party’s state account raised $1,727,889. But the bulk of that total, $1.5 million, came from Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign fund and paid for mailings sent out by the state party on his behalf attacking Republican candidate for governor Richard Irvin and the eventual GOP nominee, state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia.

The party’s state account, which also transferred $182,000 to its account for federal candidates, had $2.8 million available on July 1. The party’s federal account totaled $1.4 million at the start of the month.

Former Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, who was reelected to the state central committee and backed by Pritzker, said Kelly “has got to acknowledge we need to do something about the fundraising.”

Cullerton, who raised concerns about the federal limitations under Kelly when she was elected, said he could support a structure that would create a co-chair who would have a more direct role in fundraising.

But Cullerton also said Pritzker, as the de facto leader of the state’s Democrats, should be entitled to his choice of party chair.

Other Pritzker allies have questioned why the party hasn’t done more to prepare for the Nov. 8 general election campaign as Republicans look to raise issues of “ballot integrity” at the polls that could lead to challenges contesting Democratic votes.

Kelly allies said their fundraising structure has proved sound and that its bank account provides the money needed for the general election. They also said that no party leaders asked the state party to devote funds to assist candidates in the June 28 primary.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly was narrowly elected in March 2021 as Democratic Party of Illinois chair to finish out the term of embattled and now indicted former chairman and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

In addition, they noted that while Pritzker forces were looking to challenge her leadership, Kelly agreed to use the party’s greatest resource — it’s low-cost bulk mail postage permit — to assist the governor in the primary.

With backing from Durbin, who as majority whip holds the second highest ranking position among Democrats in the Senate, Kelly last year defeated Pritzker’s choice, Harris, by a margin of 52% to 48%.

Durbin is again backing Kelly in her bid for a full-term as party chair, while Pritzker is joined by state House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch in backing Hernandez, a member of Welch’s leadership team.

Pritzker was active in some contests for state central committee seats in the primary, backing five candidates who won election while losing in four others.

Aside from the fundraising issue, Kelly has received national kudos for modernizing the state party apparatus, raising its involvement in national party affairs and decentralizing its leadership after decades in which Madigan used the organization primarily to raise campaign funds for House Democratic candidates who would support him as speaker.

The contest for state party chair comes at the end of a significant week for state Democrats. The chair of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, was hosting a Monday fundraiser for the state party in Chicago, and representatives of the DNC’s site selection committee for the 2024 presidential nominating convention arrive Tuesday to review logistics related to the city’s application to host the event.

Illinois Democrats have asked the DNC to make the state home to an early presidential primary contest as the party revises its calendar and looks for more diversity and regional representation among states that will kick off the presidential campaign calendar.

Kelly, Pritzker and Durbin have displayed a united front in seeking the presidential convention for Chicago and making Illinois an early primary state, as well as in developing a coordinated campaign strategy for candidates across the ballot in the fall general election.

But a messy squabble over the party chairmanship and political allegiances heading into the DNC’s decision-making on two major issues could cloud efforts by Illinois Democrats looking to tout the actions and agenda of a major one-party Democratic-led state on the national stage.

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July 25, 2022 at 04:34PM

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