SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — For the first time since 1998, someone other than Michael Madigan will lead the Democratic Party of Illinois, and the most influential politicians in the state are divided over who should take the reins of the party.
Chicago Alderman Michelle Harris and Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL) from the 8th District have emerged as the top two contenders for the job.
Governor Pritzker, former Speaker Madigan, former Senate President John Cullerton, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, and Congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny Davis are backing Harris.
“I have tremendous faith in Michelle Harris,” Pritzker said last week, before denying he was cutting any deals to install her.
“There are no special promises being made,” Pritzker said. “I’ve called members of the state Central Committee to let them know why I’m supporting Michelle Harris and how she’s been an activist somebody who has really built a ground operation to get Democrats out to vote, she has one of the most productive wards in the city of Chicago in terms of getting votes out, someone who’s a listener and a leader.”
Harris was pulling out in front of the pack last week before state senator Cristina Castro (D-Elgin) dropped out, and Congressman Chuy Garcia, Alderman Silvana Tabares, Cook County Circuit Clerk Iris Martinez, and former state representative Al Riley threw their support behind Kelly.
“We think the race sort of started to change in our favor on Saturday when the Latinos came out,” Senator Durbin’s longtime aide Bill Houlihan said on Tuesday. Houlihan sits on the State Central Committee, and said Kelly would make a great spokesperson for the party.
“That was not something that Chairman Madigan was interested in doing,” Houlihan said. “I think Robin Kelly will be very good at getting around the state.”
Houlihan noted Kelly’s resume included several regions of the state, including growing up in Peoria, attending Bradley University where she now serves on the Board of Trustees, and working as the chief of staff for the Illinois Treasurer’s office in Springfield before winning her seat in Congress.
“She’s got one of the rare districts in our state and country that has both a major city suburbs and a rural part,” Houlihan said. “So I think she really understands what needs to be done. And then she’s been a very good person on the stump. She’s been downstate.”
Houlihan, who lives in Springfield, has been on the State Central Committee with Harris for the last eight years, and questioned if her relationship with downstate Democrats would be as strong as Kelly’s.
“Michelle has been in Chicago, she’s done things up in that part of the state,” he said. “She is not known among Democratic Party officials and elected officials in downstate Illinois where Robin is, and I think that’s an advantage. So I think that that’s why Robin has a real opportunity to be able to go into these communities and sit and talk to them on what kind of things we need to do to build the party.”
The Harris camp raised questions about whether or not Kelly would be eligible to raise unlimited amounts of money as a member of Congress.
“When you get closer to the election, some campaigns like to throw everything at you, including the kitchen sink. And I think that that’s what they did,” Houlihan said.
Dueling legal memos outlined federal election laws and limitations that would prevent Kelly from raising “soft money” or controlling the party coffers on her own, but members of Congress in Colorado and Georgia have taken the helm of their respective parties by delegating those restricted activities to other party leaders.
“We’re willing to make those changes,” Houlihan said. “It says that more people are going to be involved in both the fundraising as well as the spending of the money.”
Both Durbin and Pritzker’s camps agree that whoever takes the reins of the party should do a better job at sharing and collaborating with other affiliated groups to help build the grassroots of the party.
“We have not had as much ‘little D democracy’ within the Democratic Party of Illinois as I think we could have,” Pritzker said last week.
“I would like to see more of us making decisions instead of continuing this one person being in control everything,” Houlihan said.
The Democratic State Central Committee will livestream the election on Wednesday night at 6 p.m.