Down to two, Illinois Democratic Party chair battle intensifies

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — It’s a new era for the Illinois Democratic Party.

The next chair will be either Alderman Michelle Harris or Congresswoman Robin Kelly. It’s a post of enormous influence.

“We have super majorities in the legislature. We have a Democratic governor. These things don’t happen by osmosis, they happen because there’s a lot of work that goes into doing this,” said Karen Yarbrough, Cook County Clerk.

The campaign for the chairmanship has been fierce. Acting party head, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, supports Harris, and a memo she reportedly had commissioned has stirred up the race.

The legal opinion, written by an attorney at a powerful Washington, DC law firm, questions whether Representative Kelly is eligible for the top party job.

The attorney cites federal law that “prohibits a federal officeholder or candidate from directly or indirectly establishing, financing, maintain or controlling an entity that raises and spends funds outside of federal limits.”

In other words, Kelly would face restrictions helping state and local candidates raise money. The memo suggests Kelly would need to resign from Congress to assume party chair.

Kelly’s attorney admits she may have to delegate some spending authorities but she’s not backing down.

“A suggestion Congresswoman Robin Kelly is ineligible to be the Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois is false and offensive,” a statement said.

In response to those questioning her eligiblity, Kelly fired back Tuesday in a message to insiders saying, “Change isn’t easy. And it’s clear some are resistant to opening up the party and being inclusive.”

Kelly’s supporters point to Georgia where a Congresswoman heads the state party.

The memo is a sign of the intense jockeying happening behind the scenes.

“There’s a whole lot of inside baseball happening,” Marj Halperin, Democratic strategist. “Those who are backing the two candidates are willing to pull out all the stops to help get the edge. But what this boils down to is one legal opinion against another.”

Harris, Alderman of 8th Ward and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s floor leader, is backed by Governor Pritzker, Michael Madigan and Senator Tammy Duckworth. Kelly’s supporters include Senator Dick Durbin and Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who endorsed her after his pick, State Sen. Cristina Castro, dropped out.

Members of the Democratic State Central Committee will select the chair.

Whether it’s Harris or Kelly, it’s the end of Madigan’s reign. The former House Speaker held the chairman post since 1998.

“That’s why this is such a big fight. Is it going to be old machine-style politics and if it is, who controls the machine?” Halperin said. “That’s really what’s at stake now.”

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