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Gov. J.B. Pritzker solidifies party control with election of state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez as state Democratic chair

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2022-07-30
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Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, right, talks on the House floor in Springfield on Jan. 29, 2020. She was elected as state Democratic chair. E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS

State Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez was unanimously elected to lead the state Democratic Party on Saturday, a day after U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly dropped her bid for a full four-year term.

The vote by the Illinois Democratic State Central Committee at a plumbers union hall in Springfield took place quickly, but followed weeks of intense lobbying of the 34-member panel by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who backed Hernandez, and by allies of Kelly.

With Hernandez’s election as the party’s first Latina chair, the first-term governor gained control of the state party apparatus after being rebuffed a year earlier when Kelly was elected over his preferred candidate.

“Hernandez is a woman of integrity who cares deeply about fighting for working families, promoting diversity and inclusion, and helping all Illinoisans prosper,” Pritzker said in a statement of his backing for the 15-year lawmaker from Cicero.

“I know she will maintain our party unity, and I am confident in her ability to work with the State Central Committee to elect Democrats at every level of government——both in this midterm election and beyond,” the governor said.

Hernandez and her supporters sought to echo a theme of unity despite a hotly contested campaign that exposed racial divisions in the party before an important November election.

Democrats control all statewide offices and the state Supreme Court, hold supermajorities in the state House and Senate, and have a majority of the state’s U.S. House seats and both of its U.S. Senate seats.

The infighting over the leadership post came as Illinois Democrats seek a higher national profile, pushing Chicago as a host city for the 2024 Democratic national presidential nominating convention and trying to make Illinois one of the first five states in the party’s 2024 primary calendar.

While the challenge to Kelly was motivated by her limited fundraising ability as a federal officeholder, race and ethnicity quickly came to play a role in the campaign.

Kelly, a five-term congresswoman from Matteson, was prohibited from raising money for state candidates — the bulk of the party’s activity — because as a member of Congress she is subject to federal campaign finance laws that are more restrictive than state law on how much money can be contributed and what entities are allowed to donate.

Hernandez’s election was assured Friday when four Latino committee members led by U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia announced their support for her over Kelly, who was elected in March of last year and became the state party’s first Black chair.

The decision by the vote-rich Latino bloc led to Kelly’s withdrawal from the race on Friday. In her election a year ago to fill out the unexpired term of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, who resigned amid scandal, Kelly was supported by Garcia and state Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin over Pritzker’s unsuccessful choice, Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th.

Castro said one of the factors she considered in Saturday’s election was the growth of the Latino community in Illinois, which led Democrats to create a second congressional seat with a large Latino population.

“In the end, we chose the best candidate who we thought will move us forward as a state and obviously bring everyone together and unite everyone, as well as put in the resources that are necessary to get Democrats elected up and down the ticket,” Castro said.

Pritzker’s decision to back Hernandez revealed some animosity toward the reelection seeking governor from Black Democratic lawmakers.

“You know, it’s all about working together but the walk into this wasn’t about working together, unfortunately. But now that we’re here, we’ve got to figure out how to move forward,” said state Rep. Will Davis of Homewood, a member of the committee and the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.

Davis noted there are concerns that Pritzker has not moved forward on some budgetary spending items that were pushed by the Legislative Black Caucus, and said “Regardless of whatever happened here, I hope the governor is still committed to making sure that Black communities are taken care of.”

Retired state Rep. Al Riley of Olympia Fields, who supported Kelly a year ago but was not on the committee this year, issued a Tweet referencing Kelly’s work to diversify party leadership after decades of Madigan’s one-man rule.

“The more some people claim to want change, the more they really want things to stay the same. Nonetheless, character still matters. Thank you, Robin,” Riley wrote.

The battle for party leadership did not break completely along racial lines, with Hernandez getting support from the state’s first Black House Speaker, Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside. Hernandez is a member of Welch’s leadership team.

Former state Sen. John Cullerton of Chicago, a committee member who had expressed concerns about Kelly’s fundraising limitations a year ago, sought to downplay racial infighting within the party.

“I think this was very harmonious today and I also have to tell you that these reports about racism are almost comical,” said Cullerton, who backed Hernandez. “It wasn’t about race. It wasn’t about personality. It came down to this law that says you can’t raise any (state) money.”

Hernandez and Kelly declined to answer questions from reporters, but each offered statements to the state central committee.

Hernandez said she planned to meet with the committee members and other party leaders “to ensure your vision for our party is incorporated into the apparatus we will build to hold Republicans accountable and win in November.”

“I vow to continue listening to voices of Democrats across the state and will focus on building a party as diverse as Illinois,” she said.

Kelly won kudos nationally from Democratic National Committee members for modernizing Illinois’ organization and involving it in national affairs after decades when Madigan used the state party as an appendage to his fundraising activities for House Democrats who would support him as speaker.

She was approved for an open seat to continue serving on the DNC.

“This past week has been a challenging one. Honestly, the past 16 months has been challenging in many ways. I know my vision for a new kind of DPI was shared by so many and obviously I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to continue building this party,” said Kelly, who retains her spot on the state central committee. “But now it’s time to look forward.”

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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