Democratic Party chair bows out in re-election bid
SPRINGFIELD -- A contentious race for leadership of the state's Democratic Party appears to be down to a single candidate ahead of a Saturday morning vote after the party's current chair pulled herself from the running Friday.
State Rep. Lisa Hernandez, backed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch, appeared to have the race sewn up less than 24 hours before the scheduled Saturday morning Democratic State Central Committee meeting in Springfield.
It's the second time in two years the election of chair has proved a power struggle between some of the state's most prominent Democrats.
Congresswoman Robin Kelly, a Matteson Democrat, was elected to the post in March 2021 following the resignation of former House Speaker Michael Madigan, who had been the party's chair since 1998. With the backing of U.S. Sen Dick Durbin, Kelly defeated Pritzker's preferred candidate, Chicago Alderman Michelle Harris, by a vote tally of about 52% to 48%.
The party chair is chosen by a weighted vote of the Democratic State Central Committee, which is made up of one man and one woman from each of the state's 17 congressional districts, based on the number of Democratic ballots pulled.
Kelly announced in a statement Friday afternoon that she did not have the support to gain a full 4-year term.
"I was elected as the first woman and the first Black chair of the DPI because of my vision for an inclusive, diverse, and people-first party," she said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it has become clear that support for my reelection as chair will come up just shy of the necessary majority. Therefore, I have decided to withdraw my name from the running."
Durbin, who has served in Washington, D.C., since 1997, quickly issued a statement of his own after his preferred candidate bowed out.
"Congresswoman Robin Kelly made history as the first African American woman to chair the Illinois Democratic Party," he said. "Her challenge was not just to build a Democratic team, but to move from one man rule to a diverse leadership reflecting our party. She worked hard, and I was proud to back her reelection. Representative Lisa Hernandez has always been a friend. I wish her well, and I look forward to working with her."
The "one man rule" cited by Durbin referred to Madigan, who largely used the DPI chairmanship to elect state House Democrats.
That's something Pritzker alluded to at an unrelated news conference earlier in the day.
"And that's not how state parties normally operate," he said of the way Madigan ran things. "And so with the changing of the guard, the hope was that that would free the organization to do the things that it really needs to do across the state -- building field organizations, for example, and lifting up the Democratic Party in areas of the state where really, Democrats have been sort of forgotten, but there are plenty of Democrats, but they just need some organizational help."
Pritzker's camp and Hernandez's backers have frequently cited a concern that was raised before Kelly's election in 2021 -- that she was prohibited from directly raising money for state races because she was a sitting congresswoman.
It's a concern that Kelly and the party addressed by creating a separate committee to raise funds for state races.
The party maintains two main campaign funds, one regulated by the Illinois State Board of Elections and the other by the Federal Election Commission. A state Democratic Party spokesperson earlier in the week noted the two funds raised more than $2 million between them during Kelly's leadership, not including money that Pritzker himself had pumped into the party.
Still, Pritzker said Friday, he believed that workaround "wasn't working," so he backed Hernandez with the hope that Kelly would stay on as a newly created "federal chair."
A spokesperson for Kelly, however, said she had no plans to serve in such a position.
In Kelly's statement, she noted her time as chair had been a "true honor."
"Over the past 16 months, I have had the immense privilege of serving as chair of the Democratic Party," she said. "In that time, the DPI has taken dramatic steps forward by modernizing our party operations, developing new and impactful programming, and re-engaging with the National Democratic Party in a way not seen in decades. Simply put, our party has made amazing progress in a short amount of time."
Pritzker, who bankrolled a handful of central committee candidates in the June primary, ended up flipping enough seats to sway the vote in favor of his candidate. Friday afternoon support from Latino Coalition members U.S. Rep. Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, state Rep. Delia Ramirez and state Sens. Cristina Castro and Omar Aquino appeared to tip the scales toward Hernandez, along with the support of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.
Still, Kelly maintained staunch support from many.
State Rep. Will Davis, a member of the state's Legislative Black Caucus known for his independent streak in the General Assembly, praised Kelly as the first Black and female party chair who "built out a robust, diverse, and accessible party."
"Now we have a governor who wants her out. Why?" he said in a statement. "Because he has to control the party. It's shameful that he wants this fight now on the eve of an important November election, and while concurrently jeopardizing our chance of getting the DNC Convention in Chicago."
Officials from the Democratic National Committee were in Chicago earlier this week, downplaying the role the party chair vote would play in their decision between Chicago, New York City, Atlanta and Houston as a 2024 nominating convention host city.
Pritzker was asked Friday if the rancor the fight created was "worth it."
"Is it worth it? Look, what we're looking to accomplish, I think all of us who care about the Democratic Party, is to make sure that we have representation from all the diverse constituencies, and making sure that we have leadership that can accomplish the goals that we want to set out to do, which is to beat Republicans and make sure that the party is doing what it needs to do," Pritzker said.