Veteran politician makes history as first Black woman to chair organization
By Erick Johnson
Overcoming questions about her fundraising abilities, U.S. Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-2nd) made history when she was voted the new chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois in a tight election against 8th Ward Alderman Michelle Harris on March 3.
Kelly is the first Black woman to hold the position in the party’s history.
In an election based on weighted votes with the 36-member Democratic State Central Committee, Kelly won 51.7 percent to Harris’ 48.3 percent.
“Tonight, we made history together,” Kelly told members of the Democratic State Central Committee. “Thank you so much. I will not disappoint you. And wear your masks.”
History was also made Wednesday when the state of Illinois—for the first time—had a Black House Speaker, Emanuel ‘Chris’ Welch, a Black Democratic Party chair and a Black Senate majority leader, Senator Kimberly Lightford.
Moments after Kelly’s historic victory, Welch released a statement congratulating her win.
“I congratulate Robin Kelly on her election as chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois. I am confident we will work together to offer voters a bold agenda for Illinois: more resources for our public schools; social and economic justice for Black, Indigenous and communities of color; improved access to health care and social services; and a safe and resilient recovery from this pandemic. With her at DPI, we will build on an already strong and diverse Democratic coalition, so I look forward to working with her.”
Kelly and Harris promised to work together as the party enters a new era.
Before the vote, both candidates gave five-minute speeches that highlighted their accomplishments and outlined their goals for the Democratic Party of Illinois.
“I want you to know that I’ve heard your concerns and your ideas about greater transparency, engagement and building a deep, Democratic bench across all 102 counties,” Kelly said. “I want to be the next Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois because I have the qualifications, experience, relationships and vision to lead this party into the future.”
Kelly succeeds former House Speaker Mike Madigan, who led the state’s Democratic Party for over 20 years before he stepped down after he was implicated in the ComEd bribery scandal.
The election of a new party chair was itself historic. It was the first time two Black women ran for the party’s top post. When Madigan resigned from the position, the consensus among state Democrats was that a Black woman had to be Madigan’s successor.
When Kelly and Harris emerged as the top two candidates, it set off an intense public battle that rekindled memories of the 2019 Chicago mayoral race between Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Before Wednesday’s historic vote, news reports favored Harris to come out on top. She was backed by Governor J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth. Among the 36 voting members of the Democratic State Central Committee, Congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny K. Davis, as well as Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough voted for her.
Kelly received a vote from Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Iris Martinez, who praised her as a hard-working, qualified elected official, who can bring diversity to the Illinois Democratic Party. She also received votes from Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Alderman Silvana Tabares. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who is not a member of the Democratic State Central Committee and who did not vote on Wednesday, publicly endorsed Kelly.
Throughout the meeting, Kelly gained momentum as concerns about whether she was legally allowed to fundraise for a state organization gradually subsided.
During the meeting, some committee members, who were also lawyers, assured the group that Kelly can lead without violating federal laws that restrict congressmen from raising campaign money for state and local political parties. Kelly proposed to change the way the party fundraises as a way to get to around federal laws.
However, during the meeting, some committee members expressed concern of legal problems and fundraising limitations should Kelly be elected as chair. Committee members noted that about 83 percent of the Illinois Democratic Party campaign funds were raised in the state. However, members who supported Kelly grew more vocal as the meeting went on.
Last month, Harris was tapped as Mayor Lightfoot’s new floor leader. She also serves on the City Council’s Rules Committee. She has been a member of City Council since 2006.
Since 2013, Kelly has represented the 2nd Congressional District, which includes parts of Chicago and southern suburbs in Cook, Will and Kankakee counties. Previously, she served in the Illinois House and was chief of staff to former State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.