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Illinois Democratic leaders on Wednesday night selected U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson as their new state party chairman and the successor to embattled former House Speaker Michael Madigan, who held the post for 23 years.
In a vote of the 36-member Democratic State Central Committee, with each member’s ballot weighted by the number of votes cast in the 2020 March primary, Kelly got 52% to 48% for Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th.
Harris’ loss was a blow to first-term Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who sought to consolidate power in the party with Madigan leaving the political scene. Pritzker backed Harris, as did U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Both are seeking reelection in 2022.
Kelly’s selection reflected a desire to decentralize party power after Madigan as well as fears that Pritzker, a multibillionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, would wield control of party purse strings. Kelly had the backing of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the state’s senior senator and No. 2 ranking Democrat in the chamber.
Kelly, who is Black, garnered 51.7% of the weighted vote to become chair of the party, narrowly besting Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) during a virtual meeting of members of the state party’s leadership ranks.
Kelly and Harris, who is also Black, thanked each other and promised to work together after the evening vote.
Harris went into the meeting with more committee members publicly supporting her candidacy, but fell short with 48.3% of the total.
In a statement, Harris called Kelly “an esteemed colleague” and said “it is time to move forward and we will do that together.”
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She will now ascend to the role held for more than 20 years by former Illinois State Rep. Michael Madigan, who also resigned his seat in the house after stepping down as Speaker earlier this year.
Kelly is now the first Black woman to be elected to lead the party, according to her office.
The State Central Committee consists of two members from each of Illinois’ 18 U.S. House districts. Each of the 36 members received a weighted vote based on the number of votes cast in their district during the 2020 Democratic primary in the state.
Kelly had received the support of several prominent politicians, including U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Harris had received support from Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, but ultimately Kelly prevailed in the tight race.
Though Pritzker congratulated Kelly for her win on Twitter, her win was a blow to his efforts to assert more influence over the party as its largest financier.
Kelly rebutted a line of questioning from former Senate President John Cullerton who raised “a major, major problem” with her ability to raise campaign funds for the state party while serving as a sitting member of Congress.
“To be a chairman and not be able to raise money is really a limitation,” Cullerton said, warning that “the Republicans are going to have a field day with this,” and “donors are going to be investigated by the Federal Election Commission.”
“Every memo from every lawyer said I can chair the party,” Kelly responded. “I just have to follow the federal regulations, so it’s not that I can’t raise money at all. That’s simply not true.”
Cullerton suggested that Harris and Kelly split the job, with Harris raising funds for state and local races and Kelly serving as the party’s public leader.
“This is a quagmire,” Cullerton said.
Kelly rejected his offer.