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Illinois Gov. Pritzker aims to oust state Democratic Party chair in test of political muscle

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is raising his national profile with Democrats amid 2024 speculation.
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

CHICAGO — Gov. J.B. Pritzker is making a play to change the leadership of the Illinois Democratic Party in a move that’s rankling some colleagues and putting him at odds with another powerful Democrat — Sen. Dick Durbin.

The tug of war is poised to reveal whether Pritzker, who is seeking a second term this fall, has the muscle to influence internal party politics while building a national profile amid speculation over any 2024 ambitions.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, the first African American and the first woman to chair the state Democratic Party, is running to serve a full four-year-term — and she’s doing it with Durbin’s backing.

But Pritzker and state House Speaker Chris Welch are supporting another candidate, state Rep. Lisa Hernandez, citing Kelly’s fundraising constraints. Pritzker has opposed Kelly because her role as a federal officeholder means she has to abide by different rules for fundraising — the bulk of the job as party chair.

Kelly’s dual position as party chair and federal officeholder is rare but not unheard of; Rep. Nikema Williams also holds both posts in Georgia.

Kelly said in an interview Monday that it was “disappointing” that the governor wasn’t offering her his support. Asked whether Pritzker had reached out behind the scenes or had warned he would back someone else, Kelly responded: “No, no and no.”

“I can’t explain why he is doing this,” Kelly said. “You have to ask him.”

A Pritzker campaign aide said any suggestion that the governor’s support for another candidate is a surprise is “disingenuous.”

“Lisa is the one running. It’s not the governor running against Robin,” the aide said. “This is not a personality conflict.”

Kelly’s camp retorted that it is fundraising in compliance with guidelines set forth by the Federal Election Commission, which said last year that Kelly can raise funds only for candidates for federal office and that any money for state candidates must be raised in a separate committee that isn’t subject to her review.

The Pritzker-Kelly divide comes to a head this week when members of the State Central Committee cast their votes for party chair. The panel’s 34 members — two from each of the 17 congressional districts — vote Saturday.

It’s bad timing for a family fight to spill into the open, given that members of the Democratic National Committee are here this week to size up the city as a possible 2024 convention site. DNC Chair Jaime Harrison was in town Monday to headline a fundraiser for Illinois Democrats hosted by longtime donor Fred Eychaner. Illinois is also under consideration for an earlier spot in the presidential primary calendar. (In 2020, the state’s primary was two weeks after Super Tuesday on March 3.)

The public schism exposes fault lines within a state party that is also experiencing transformational change since Illinois’ longtime power player, Michael Madigan, stepped down last year under federal indictment. Madigan was the party chair for 23 years, overlapping with his 36 years as the iron-fisted House speaker. Madigan also had a reputation for expertly leveraging his party position to pull the strings for political foot soldiers to judicial nominations.

Madigan’s departure left a vast power vacuum that Pritzker began to fill with his decisive victory over former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 and a series of legislative wins — including victories on guns and abortion issues — since he took office.

Kelly was selected last year to finish out the rest of Madigan’s term as state party chair, and she is now seeking a full four-year term. Pritzker’s camp backed a different candidate last year.

Pritzker’s aides argue that the governor’s preference for Hernandez in this year’s race has nothing to do with disliking Kelly personally, saying it is more about opposing a federal official’s holding the position. An aide to the Pritzker campaign expressed frustration over what the aide considered a slow pace of fundraising and complained that the party hasn’t acted aggressively enough to protect Democratic supermajorities.

The aide, however, said Pritzker admires Kelly as a member of Congress and would like her to stay on as chair emeritus at the party.

Kelly bristled at the suggestion.

“I was duly, fairly, legally elected as the chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and I’m running for re-election to do the same thing,” she said. “I won fair and square.”

Bill Houlihan, a longtime Durbin operative and State Central Committee member, said Durbin, the state’s senior senator, is calling members of the Central Committee to advocate for Kelly.

In his role helping oversee party fundraising, Houlihan said that Kelly is on par with what Madigan brought in before her.

He also challenged the Pritzker’s aide’s contention that the party had been too lax in preparing for the fall.

“We’ve got five field coordinators. We’ve got staff that are running voter registration and voter protection. We got folks that are helping us do social media. We got communications outreach. We got an executive director,” Houlihan said. “They work every day on getting ready for the November election.”