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Illinois Democratic Party chair fight turns ugly with accusations of racism

Rep. Robin Kelly, the first Black woman to chair the state party, is seeking a full four-year term.
Image: Robin Kelly
Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., speaks at a Congressional Black Caucus news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 27.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP file

CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s push to unseat the state Democratic Party chair is growing messier by the day.

An Illinois abortion rights group joined the fray ahead of Saturday’s vote by opposing Rep. Robin Kelly, the first Black woman to chair the state party, in her bid for a full four-year term. That in turn prompted a Cook County official to lob racial accusations before she withdrew as a co-sponsor for a fundraiser hosted by the group.

“As a Black woman, I am mindful of the dog whistles used to raise legal questions about the first African American and first woman to lead the Democratic Party of Illinois,” Cook County Commissioner Donna Miller said in a statement Wednesday. “The party has flourished under [Kelly’s] leadership.”

Miller’s remarks came after the Congressional Black Caucus PAC entered the debate in support of Kelly, while the Illinois AFL-CIO announced it is backing the Pritzker-supported Latina candidate, state Rep. Lisa Hernandez.

Image: Gov. J.B. Pritzker
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announces a new round of Covid-19-related emergency housing assistance at Abundant Faith Christian Center in Springfield on Oct. 27.John O'Connor / AP file

And in an awkward exchange Tuesday at a joint news conference with the Democratic National Committee, at which Pritzker and Kelly at times stood side by side, a reporter asked Pritzker how he could say Democrats were united if he was trying to “boot” Kelly from her post.

Then, later Wednesday, Rep. Bobby Rush, who also is Black, asserted his concerns with Kelly as chair.

“I have a great deal of love and respect for congresswoman Kelly, but this experiment of having a chair who can’t fundraise just didn’t work,” he said in a statement.

Kelly's team, however, contends its fundraising has been on par with the previous chair.

The clashes are ill-timed, given that the Democratic National Committee is visiting Chicago to size it up as a potential 2024 convention site. And the injection of racial politics further complicates matters for Pritzker, who not only is seeking re-election in the fall but is also increasingly testing the 2024 presidential waters.

Among those from the Black caucus who signed on to support Kelly was Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, who is known for having made the influential decision to endorse Joe Biden in South Carolina’s 2020 presidential primary, putting Biden on a path to victory on Super Tuesday and beyond.

But one of Pritzker’s allies in his attempt to unseat Kelly is state House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the first African American to serve as speaker in Illinois. And in last year’s party chair race, to fill out the rest of the previous chairman’s term, Pritzker backed a Black candidate who narrowly lost to Kelly.

The party chair vote, among 34 members of the State Central Committee, takes place Saturday. At the Democratic National Committee news conference, Pritzker said the party would remain united no matter the outcome.

Pritzker has repeatedly said he opposes Kelly solely because of the legal fundraising constraints that apply to her because of her rare dual role as a federal lawmaker and the party chair. The abortion rights group Personal PAC also raised concerns about Kelly’s ability to raise money, claiming the constraints could affect efforts by abortion rights advocates in Illinois, which Miller called a “disturbing” allegation.

The Federal Election Commission last year ruled that Kelly can raise money only for candidates for federal office and that any money for state candidates must be raised through a separate committee that isn’t subject to her review.

“The fundamental problem with Robin as chairman is that she’s not raising enough money,” said John Cullerton, a former president of the Illinois Senate and a member of the State Central Committee. “The rest of it is all friendly. It has nothing to do with personality.”

That sentiment hasn’t appeased people like Miller, the Cook County commissioner, who accused Personal PAC, a group that supports abortion rights, of using a “dog whistle” as it backed Hernandez over Kelly.

“Personal PAC did not raise the same questions about the previous chair when he was under federal investigation and ultimately indicted,” Miller said of longtime chair Mike Madigan, who stepped down last year.

In a text message response, Personal PAC’s chief executive, Terry Cosgrove, said: “Personal PAC has been proud since day one, to support and stand with the first African American Speaker of the Illinois House.”