Illinois Gov. Pritzker is aiming to oust the Democratic Party leader to test his political strength

CHICAGO — Gov. JB Pritzker is making a play to change the leadership of the Illinois Democratic Party in a move that angers 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 this fall, has the power to influence internal party politics while building a national profile amid speculation about 2024 ambitions.

US Rep. Robin Kelly, the first African American and first woman to chair the state’s Democratic Party, is running for a full four-year term — and she’s doing so with Durbin’s support.

But Pritzker and House Speaker Chris Welch are backing another candidate, Rep. Lisa Hernandez, citing Kelly’s fundraising limitations. Pritzker has spoken out against Kelly because her role as a federal officer means she has to conform to different rules for fundraising — the bulk of work as party leader.

Kelly’s dual position as party leader and federal official is rare but not uncommon; 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 support. When asked if Pritzker had reached behind the scenes or warned that he was supporting 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 aide said any suggestion that the governor’s endorsement of another candidate was a surprise was “disingenuous.”

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

Kelly’s camp responded that it was following guidelines set by the Federal Election Commission, which said last year that Kelly could raise funds only for candidates for federal office and that any money for state candidates must be raised in a separate committee not subject to their review.

The rift between Pritzker and Kelly widens this week as members of the state Central Committee cast their ballots for party leader. The panel’s 34 members — two from each of the 17 congressional districts — vote Saturday.

With members of the Democratic National Committee here this week to assess the city as a possible 2024 convention site, it’s bad timing for a family feud to go public. DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison was in town Monday to lead a fundraiser for Illinois Democrats hosted by longtime donor Fred Eychaner. Illinois is also being considered for an earlier spot in the presidential primary election calendar. (In 2020, the state primary was held two weeks after Super Tuesday on March 3.)

The public schism exposes fault lines within a state party that is also undergoing turmoil since longtime Illinois powerhouse Michael Madigan resigned on federal charges last year. Madigan was party leader for 23 years, overlapping with his 36 years as the Ironclad Speaker of the House of Representatives. Madigan also had a reputation for expertly using his position in the party to pull the strings for political foot soldiers to court nominations.

Madigan’s departure left a huge power vacuum that Pritzker began to fill with his pivotal victory over former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 and a string of legislative victories — including victories on guns and abortion issues — since taking office.

Kelly was selected last year to complete the remainder of Madigan’s tenure as state party leader, and she is now seeking 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 had nothing to do with disliking Kelly personally, but rather with opposing the position of a federal official. A Pritzker campaign aide expressed frustration at what the aide saw as the slow pace of fundraising and complained that the party had not acted aggressively enough to protect the Democratic supermajorities.

However, the aide said Pritzker admires Kelly as a member of Congress and wants her to stay as the party’s leader emeritus.

Kelly balked at the suggestion.

“I was duly, fairly and legally elected chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, and I am running for re-election to do the same,” she said. “I won fairly and honestly.”

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

In his role overseeing fundraising for the party, Houlihan said Kelly was comparable to what Madigan brought before her.

He also challenged 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 take care of voter registration and voter protection. We have people helping us to do social media. We have contact. We have a CEO,” Houlihan said. “They are working every day to prepare for the November election.” Illinois Gov. Pritzker is aiming to oust the Democratic Party leader to test his political strength

Fry Electronics Team

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