CHICAGO — Gov. JB Pritzker plays a play to turn the leadership of the Illinois Democratic Party into a move that confuses some colleagues and puts him at odds with another powerful Democrat – Senator Dick Durbin.
The tug-of-war is poised to reveal whether Pritzker, who is seeking a second term as governor this fall, has the power to influence internal party politics while building a national profile amid speculation about 2024 ambitions.
Rep. Robin Kelly, the first African-American and first woman to chair the Democratic State Party, is running for renewing her position for a full four-year term — and she’s doing it with Durbin’s support.
But Pritzker and Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch back another candidate, State Representative Lisa Hernandez, citing Kelly’s fundraising restrictions. Pritzker has opposed Kelly because her role as a federal office holder means she has to abide by various fundraising rules — most of the job as party chairman.
Kelly’s dual position as party chairman and federal office holder is rare, but not unheard of; Rep. Nikema Williams in Georgia also serves both functions.
In an interview with NBC News on Monday, Kelly said it was “disappointing” that the governor did not offer her his support. When asked if Pritzker had reached out behind the scenes or warned that he would support someone else, Kelly replied, “No, no and no.”
“I can’t explain why he’s doing this,” Kelly said. “You have to ask him.”
A Pritzker campaign official said any suggestion that the governor’s support for another candidate surprising the Kelly camp is “dishonest.”
“Lisa is the one running; it’s not the governor fighting Robin,’ the assistant said. “This is not a personality conflict.”
Kelly’s camp responded that it is raising money in accordance with guidelines set by the Federal Election Commission, which said last year that Kelly can only raise money for candidates for federal office, and that money for state candidates must be raised in a separate committee that does not. subject to its assessment.
The Pritzker-Kelly division comes to a head this week as members of the state’s central committee cast their vote for party chairman. The panel’s 34 members — two from each of the 17 congressional districts — will vote Saturday.
It’s bad timing for a family fight to come out into the open, as members of the Democratic National Committee are here this week to assess the city as a possible 2024 convention venue. DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison was in town Monday to hold a conference call. to lead a fundraiser for the Illinois Democrats, organized by longtime donor Fred Eychaner. Illinois is also under consideration for an earlier spot in the presidential primary calendar. (In 2020, the state primary was two weeks after Super Tuesday on March 3.)
The public schism exposes rifts within a state party that is also undergoing transformational changes since longtime Illinois power player Michael Madigan was forced to resign amid federal indictment last year. Madigan served as party chairman for 23 years, overlapping his 36 years as the rock-solid House speaker. But Madigan also had a reputation for skillfully using his party position to take control, from political foot soldiers to judicial nominations.
Madigan’s departure left a huge power vacuum that Pritzker began to fill with his decisive victory over former GOP governor Bruce Rauner in 2018 and a string of legislative victories — including on guns and abortion issues — since taking office.
Kelly was selected last year to complete the remainder of Madigan’s term as chairman of the state party, and she is now aiming for a full four-year term. Pritzker’s camp backed another 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, but more with opposition to a federal official holding the position. A Pritzker campaign employee expressed frustration at what they perceived to be a slow pace of fundraising and complained that the party had not acted aggressively enough to protect the Democratic supermajorities.
However, the aide said that Pritzker admires Kelly as a congressman and would like her to stay on as chair emeritus at the party.
Kelly was furious at that suggestion.
“I have been duly, fairly, legally elected chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, and I am running for reelection to do the same,” she said. “I won honestly.”
Bill Houlihan, a longtime Durbin agent and a head of state of the central committee, said the state’s senior senator is calling the members of the central committee who are advocating for Kelly.
In his role of overseeing the party’s fundraising efforts, Houlihan said Kelly is on a par with what Madigan brought in for her.
He also disputed the Pritzker’s aide’s claim that the party had been too lax in preparing for the fall.
“We have five field coordinators. We have employees who handle voter registration and voter protection. We have people who help us with social media. We have communication. We have an executive director,” Houlihan said. “They are working every day preparing for the November elections.”