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Asian American Caucus backing Rep. Olickal for state central committee

Wednesday, Feb 1, 2023 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Politico

Mike Cabonargi, the longtime Chicago Democratic insider and former Cook County Board of Review commissioner, is exiting the Democratic State Central Committee because he’s taking a job in the Biden administration. […]

Cabonargi, once an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin, stepped down from the state Democratic Party committee Sunday. Democrats have until Feb. 28 to replace him in a process that’s similar to how state representatives are chosen. Elected Democrats from the area represented by Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s 9th Congressional District will name Cabonargi’s successor.

Angling for the seat: Leo Smith, director of policy at Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny) and husband of former state Sen Heather Steans, is a name that’s popped up.

And the Asian American Caucus is pushing for an Asian American to get the appointment. “Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic in Illinois,” the group wrote in a letter to fellow Dems who will vote on Cabonargi’s replacement. Here’s the letter.

Population power: The caucus notes that the 9th District contains the largest Asian-American population of any congressional district in Illinois and that it helped flip three Illinois General Assembly seats from R to D in the past two cycles. “We deserve a seat at the table,” the group wrote.

Cabonargi won reelection to the state central committee, but lost his Board of Review seat (and his paying job) last year to fellow Democrat Samantha Steele.

* Not mentioned in the above story, for whatever reason, is that the Asian American Caucus is backing freshman state Rep. Kevin Olickal (D-Skokie) for the appointment

We support State Representative Kevin Olickal to be the first Asian American / Indian American State Central Committeeperson in Illinois.

    ● Kevin is a sitting State Representative in the 16th District. He represents a diverse district that is city and suburban, just like the 9th District.
    ● Kevin is a proven campaigner. He ran successful target races for the Illinois House Democrats. And he just won a very competitive primary.
    ● Kevin will represent the suburbs in a majority suburban district. He will help cover the district by balancing the 9th CD’s State Central Committee with the sitting city Committeewoman.
    ● Kevin can represent, recruit, and fundraise from a community that needs to be engaged more in the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Olickal defeated Rep. Denyse Wang Stoneback in the 2022 primary.

* Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago) is one of the signatories. This is what she told me…

People are going to question Kevin’s qualifications because he’s a new state Rep, but if years in office is the criteria our entire community is at a structural disadvantage. There aren’t going to be many electeds to choose from. But as a collective, we bring a lot, and the job for Kevin is to represent all of us on that body. He is connected to Ram and Raja and all the fundraising potential in the South Asian community, me and the Chinese community, Sharon and the Korean community, Hoan and the Vietnamese community, Nabeela and the Muslim community, etc. Leo Smith is not in office and yes he (or Heather) has money but is it new money for the party? Is it a whole new population of voters? My hope is the committeepeople will vote for what’s good for the party and not the same old cronyism because that will be the party’s downfall.

State records show that Leo Smith has contributed $1.8 million since 1998 to various candidates and political committees.


  1. - Ashland Adam - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 9:59 am:

    Rep. Olickal would be a positive addition to the Dem Central Committee. I live in the 9th CD, and will be reaching out to committeewomen and men to recommend him. He’s smart, hardworking, collaborative, and he would bring three needed perspectives: 1. that of a young person (he’s 28 - 30 - ish?). 2. He’s of Asian descent - an under-represented voice in these circles. 3. He brings the perspective of an underdog fighter - one who has waged two uphill campaigns for state rep - against the odds, successful the second time.

    Nothing against Mr. Smith, but other than being privileged, wealthy, and the husband of a former (appointed) state senator - what does he add to the Democratic effort?

  2. - cermak_rd - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 10:02 am:

    I actually liked Rep Mah’s quote, except for one little nib, referring to the Muslim community like an ethnic group, expecially in the context of referring to Asians specifically, is a little constricting for a world religion. Islam extends from parts of modern-day China all the way to the mid east and also through parts of Africa, plus it has converts all over the world, including the US.

  3. - John Lopez - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 10:18 am:

    Anything about the 9th Congressional District is going to come down to who will try to succeed Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky when she decides to retire. She’ll be 80 in 2024.

    Rep. Olickal’s ambition, coupled with his youth, makes him too much a risk to run for Congress over the Democrats’ succession plan for Schakowsky.

    Leo Smith is not a risk to run for Congress, and that makes him the safer choice.

  4. - Hannibal Lecter - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 10:23 am:

    I think that all of the people that wish to be appointed need to talk about how they will help make DPI relevant again. DPI is clearly in rebuilding mode after MJM left and the party selected a chair that was not able to fundraise to fund its efforts.

    Specifically, these candidates need to be able to discuss 1. What is their fundraising strategy for DPI; 2. What is their strategy to get campaign volunteers or paid campaign workers to work on behalf of democratic campaigns; 3. What is their overall philosophy for DPI and its role in state democratic politics.

    Diversity is important, but unless a candidate can address those three items, they should not be considered.

  5. - Hannibal Lecter - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 10:28 am:

    As a follow up, it seems like Olickal’s fundraising strategy is to focus on the Asian community. Raja has been a proven fundraiser so if he is connected to those networks, that is a net plus for him for sure.

  6. - Socially DIstant watcher - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 10:56 am:

    @Ashland: Watchu talking bout? Heather Steans won that seat by election many times, including winning contested primaries.

  7. - Amalia - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 11:16 am:

    not saying who should be chosen, but Leo Smith has been a public interest issues advocate for years. He’s very smart and dedicated and has worked on committees without needing his name in lights. I’ve known of him through issue work before I ever knew who Heather Steans was.

  8. - Pot calling kettle - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 11:34 am:

    The DPI needs more diverse representation more than anything else. How do they reach and motivate young people to vote and volunteer? How do they reach and motivate folks in the very diverse Asian community to vote and volunteer? Someone from those demographic groups is needed to provide insight and a voice. That is much more important to the long-term prospects of the DPI than fundraising.

  9. - Surge voter - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 11:39 am:

    Yes…what Amalia just said!!!

  10. - Dem Unity - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 11:42 am:

    If those are our choices, bring on Kevin. The Asian American communities need a seat at the table of the Democratic Party and he’s add another capable young central committee person, joining all the new young blood in recent years. Let’s hope those reasons are more compelling than wanting to add the voice of a wealthy donor.

  11. - TNR - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 11:49 am:

    I’m with Amalia on this.

    Plenty of ways to make a good argument for Olickal without taking shots at Leo Smith. Poor form.

  12. - Hannibal Lecter - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 12:13 pm:

    === The DPI needs more diverse representation more than anything else. How do they reach and motivate young people to vote and volunteer? How do they reach and motivate folks in the very diverse Asian community to vote and volunteer? Someone from those demographic groups is needed to provide insight and a voice. That is much more important to the long-term prospects of the DPI than fundraising. ===

    The purpose of DPI is to help Democrats get elected in statewide and local races. You win elections through successful voter contact. In order to have successful voter contact, you need money (to pay for ads and staff to run various programs) and human resources.

    Yes, volunteers are great and needed, but paid staff is much more effective (and consistent) than volunteers. So I generally disagree with your comment. Having someone from the Asian democratic is only worthwhile if that person is going to actually have the resources to contact existing voters, attract new voters, and get those voters to vote for your candidates. I understand your point about having someone that is able to reach and motivate folks in the very diverse Asian community, but in order to do that, you need money. Otherwise, nobody outside of his legislative district will know (or care about) who he is.

  13. - Nuke The Whales - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 2:22 pm:

    ==People are going to question Kevin’s qualifications because he’s a new state Rep==
    No they’re not. They won’t question them generally either. He did a great job at IADO.

  14. - Shytown - Wednesday, Feb 1, 23 @ 3:42 pm:

    Looking at the contributions Rich posted, tell me I’m wrong here, but it looks like Leo Smith has donated something like $53,000 to Republicans? Wtf??

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