Column: Robin Kelly ably led state Democrats, but Pritzker’s money mattered more – Chicago Tribune

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Something stinks about the wheeling and dealing that ended with Rep. Robin Kelly, the congresswoman from south suburban Matteson, dropping her bid to remain chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Kelly threw in the towel Friday, clearing the way for the Democratic State Central Committee to unanimously pick state Rep. Lisa Hernandez of Cicero on Saturday to lead the party.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker backed Hernandez. A bunch of party bigwigs, from House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Westchester to U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, seemed eager to please Pritzker. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and others supported Kelly.

Illinois Democrats narrowly picked Kelly 16 months ago after former House Speaker Michael Madigan resigned the party chairmanship. Madigan, now awaiting trial on corruption charges, was notoriously averse to using email, text messages and other forms of electronic communication.

Kelly supporters said she modernized the party’s antiquated fundraising and communications apparatus during her relatively short tenure in charge. When we spoke in March after she’d led the party for a year, she talked about engaging with younger people and building for the future.

“The evening I won I said I wanted a more active, transparent, present, diverse and inclusive party and we have definitely been working to be all of that,” she told me.

But headwinds grew stronger. Nagging concerns remained that the hands of Kelly, a federal officeholder, were tied when it came to raising money for state candidates.

No bother, Kelly told me. She did the grin-and-greets and raised dough for presidential and congressional candidates and a separate committee handled fundraising for others. Democratic parties in other states did it that way, too. No big deal.

There was something disingenuous, I thought, about the party’s whisper campaign that Kelly’s chairmanship presented some sort of insurmountable barrier to success. It sounds like a serious concern until you stop and think about dollar amounts.

The party had $2.8 million on hand July 1 for federal candidates. The state account raised $1.7 million during the second quarter that ended June 30.

These sums seem paltry compared to the $62.4 million the Pritzker campaign spent during the recent gubernatorial primary. Pritzker spent $136 million when he defeated former Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018.

Fresh off a Democratic primary election win, Gov. J.B. Pritzker sits down for an interview June 29, 2022. at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Such massive amounts of money make the state party’s fundraising work seem about as significant as holding a bake sale to buy a new home. It’s tough to swallow complaints about Kelly’s effectiveness as leader when Pritzker’s checkbook so clearly dominates political spending in Illinois.

Republicans are so outgunned by Pritzker’s deep pockets that their biggest spender, Ken Griffin, gave up and moved to Florida. There’s nothing worse for a billionaire than being unable to buy the big fish title, even when the pond is the size of Lake Michigan.

Pritzker is like the invasive Asian carp that threatens to crowd out all other species.

Kelly led the party with integrity and a strong work ethic. Pritzker spent money to back candidates running for seats on the central committee. Pritzker seemed to act like a spoiled rich kid who insisted on getting his way.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson speaks at the Illinois Democratic County Chair’s Association brunch in Springfield before Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair Aug. 18, 2021. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Pritzker has weathered GOP attacks and maintained a reputation as a decent person. He’s bolstered his brand by matching attack ad spending dollar for dollar. There’s talk he’s among the nation’s most popular governors and that he and Gavin Newsom of California would be strong Democratic contenders for president in 2024 if President Joe Biden decides to not seek a second term.

Jewish senior citizens at the Shir Tikvah Temple in Homewood asked about Pritzker running for president when I visited for a lunch time chat last week. They invite me every few months to discuss current events and I enjoy the visits.

I told them I disliked how Pritzker pays 16 members of his administration out of his own pocket on top of their taxpayer-funded salaries. His chief of staff, for example, gets $148,000 a year from taxpayers and $150,000 from Pritzker. Some watchdogs have raised concerns about transparency and potential conflicts of interest.

Seniors wanted to know my thoughts on 2024 presidential candidates. During my last visit, in April, when Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin was still leading in polls for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, I correctly predicted Irvin would tank and state Sen. Darren Bailey would be the nominee.

The crystal ball for the 2024 presidential race is less clear. On the Republican side, former President Donald Trump definitely will not be the nominee. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis looks to be the likely pick at this point.

On the Democratic side, Biden, 79, faces low approval ratings and damaging concerns about his age. Vice President Kamala Harris has failed to impress.

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I liked Pete Buttigieg as a leader, I told the group. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, ran for president in 2020 and serves as U.S. secretary of transportation.

The Homewood group didn’t think America was ready to elect a gay man president. I acknowledged their concerns. In politics, perception often matters more than one’s track record. Other presidential contenders will likely emerge.

Chicago wants to host the 2024 Democratic presidential convention. Kelly and Pritzker stood side by side last week and faced reporters who asked about how the battle for state party chair was dividing Illinois Democrats.

Kelly understood that it was critical for Democrats in the cities and states bidding to host the convention to project an appearance of unity. Maybe she dropped out of the running for party chair because she knew she didn’t have the votes. But by withdrawing, she presented herself as the bigger person who cared more about party unity than personal gain.

If you ask me, Pritzker buying control of the party projects more of an appearance of impropriety than concerns about Kelly’s potential fundraising limitations.

Ted Slowik is a columnist with the Daily Southtown.

tslowik@tribpub.com

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August 2, 2022 at 06:28PM

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