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In post-Madigan power vacuum, Illinois Democrats settle once more into détente ahead of midterm election

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Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
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New state Democratic Party Chair State Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) and ousted Chair U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Matteson) embrace after a contentious intra-party battle Saturday in Springfield.

An internal power squabble within Illinois’ Democratic Party leadership, which briefly turned public — and ugly — had already resolved nearly 24 hours before Saturday’s meeting to elect a new chair to lead the state party for the next four years.

But the fight hung over the party’s State Central Committee meeting at Springfield’s largest union hall as U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-2) accepted her ouster in favor of State Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) to lead the Democratic Party of Illinois — an organization that had, for years, largely been another fundraising tool for longtime Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), and not a traditional state party.

Kelly on Saturday said she was proud of her performance as party chair over the last 16 months, and noted the surprised reactions she got simply by showing up to events in her capacity as DPI head — something Madigan rarely did, especially in recent years. Kelly even recalled how introducing herself during a meeting of other state Democratic parties last fall garnered a standing ovation.

“And to be clear, it wasn't because they all love me; they didn't even know me,” Kelly quipped. “It was because they hadn't seen anyone from Illinois at one of those meetings in a very long time — decades.”

Party building

Saturday’s meeting included many accolades for Kelly, who will remain on the State Central Committee and as a member of the Democratic National Committee. Though no one used the name of now-indicted former Speaker Madigan, it was clear to whom they were contrasting Kelly’s 16-month performance as chair.

“Everything changed overnight once you became party chair and it was like a brand new day,” 11th Congressional District Committeeman Peter Janko, of McHenry County, told Kelly. “It is the first time I actually felt like the role of state central committeeperson actually meant something.”

15th District Committeeman Terry Redman of McLean County praised Kelly’s approach to Illinois’ other 97 counties outside of Cook and the suburban collar counties.

“Finally downstate Illinois got some attention and that is all because of you,” he said.

17th District Committeewoman Pam Davidson of Knox County, who won against Pritzker’s preferred candidate in that race, echoed Redman’s sentiment.

“I pray to God that continues,” she said.

Under Kelly’s direction, the party has hired five full-time field organizers, who are each responsible for party-building in their respective regions. That includes working with local Democratic leaders to identify possible candidates for races up and down the ballot, especially in red or purple counties.

And after years Democratic leaders writing off downstate counties as intractably red, 13th District Committeeman Bill Houlihan said he’s hearing positive signs from Democrats those areas who see a possible path back to holding elective power either locally or in the state legislature.

“There's so much support in these areas for Donald [Trump] that came from working class and poor white families,” Houlihan said. “To win them back, it’s going to take them seeing that the party is delivering for them in some way, shape or form. And…that's going to be a couple cycles. I think we could we’re probably going to see some numbers change, maybe by 2026.”

Now retired, Houlihan was a longtime staffer for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who pushed for Kelly’s candidacy for party chair last year. After decades working in Illinois Democratic politics, Houlihan said he’s noticed a sense of complacency among some of his party as Democrats have solidified control in the state’s congressional delegation, as well as in all three branches of state government.

“‘We carried Hillary by 16 [points]. We carried Biden by 17 points. It’s blue state,’” Houlihan said of Democrats’ perception. “But, you know, we lost offices in both those election cycles because of the down-ballot races…[The idea that] we’re a blue state has worked against us.”

Madigan and his DPI left the business of party building to the Democratic County Chairs Association, which has for years embraced modern campaign technology and has shouldered the brunt of Democratic candidate training in Illinois. But now, Houlihan said, the two groups are working in tandem. He acknowledged Democrats have a lot of ground to make up, especially in down-ballot contests like municipal elections, where Republicans — particularly far-right candidates trained by Steve Bannon-aligned groups — have focused on building power on school and library boards in recent years.

But Houlihan said he’s optimistic about Democrats’ progress, in no small part due to Madigan’s absence taking the punch out of Illinois Republicans’ perennial messaging against the former speaker’s consolidated power and perceived corruption.

“If you're a first-time candidate, you got to go out and defend that,” Houlihan said. “And the first question you're asked by a reporter is, ‘Are you going to be voting for Mike Madigan for speaker?’ …That's a tough position to be in.”

Intra-party battle

In the run-up to Saturday’s meeting, Kelly’s most loyal supporters said racism was at play in the effort to dump the congresswoman from her post of racism. Kelly is the first Black person and woman to ascend to party chair. But after first-term House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside), himself the first Black leader of his chamber, publicly backed Hernandez for the role last week, both Black and Latino committee members shifted their support from Kelly to Hernandez.

Hernandez, an eight-term member of the Illinois House, also had backing from Gov. JB Pritzker. The governor spent more than $400,000 on eight candidates in contested races for the 34-member State Central Committee — with a 50% success rate — in advance of the chairmanship selection.

Pritzker’s battle to have an ally control the party was a repeat of the contest he’d lost last year, when his preferred candidate narrowly lost to Kelly for party chair over concerns about Kelly’s fundraising abilities being hampered due to her holding federal office. Even though federal regulators approved a workaround for the party to keep raising unlimited so-called “soft money” for state and local races, not all Democratic leaders were satisfied with the arrangement.

In her remarks Saturday, Kelly said the last week of mudslinging had “been a challenging one,” and repeated was “disappointed that I wasn't able to continue building the party in this state, especially when I had such little time to do the work.”

Both Kelly and Hernandez declined to speak to reporters, but Hernandez vowed to continue the work Kelly and her staff had begun to modernize the party, which included years-old best practices like using social media and email outreach, as well as providing the most basic of resources to down-ballot candidates.

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

Hamstrung fundraising

In the 23 years Madigan controlled the state party, the former speaker was a prolific fundraiser, leaning hard on core constituencies like labor unions and trial lawyers to build up campaign coffers he mostly used to maintain a Democratic majority in the House, which would, in turn, re-elect him speaker every other January. Except for two years in the 1990s when a GOP wave made the Democratic caucus a minority, Madigan retained speakership from 1983 to early 2021 — the longest-tenured legislative leader in U.S. history.

And while Illinois Democrats have largely been freed of an albatross that hung heaviest in the last few years before Madigan’s ouster, while the former speaker was under a cloud of suspicion as federal prosecutors inched ever-closer to his inner circle, the state party has not been able to match the fundraising in a post-Madigan era.

“It wasn’t anywhere close to what we need,” former Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) told NPR Illinois.

Kelly supporters touted the party’s embrace of small-dollar fundraising made possible by technology like ActBlue, a campaign tool Democrats in other states have used for several cycles now. 80 percent of donors to the party under Kelly’s leadership have been first-time donors. But Cullerton, who spent years engaging in serious fundraising for his Senate majority, said building up a party war chest requires a different — big-dollar — fundraising approach than for individual candidates.

Now serving his third term in party leadership as 5th District Committeeman, Cullerton was the loudest voice warning against installing a federal officeholder as party chair last year. The longtime former legislator confronted the same federal election law that prevents Kelly from raising money for state candidates years before when U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) wasn’t able to help fundraise for his sister, whom Cullerton ran for the state Senate. Despite twice losing, Christine Benson now serves on the State Central Committee too.

Cullerton appeared to be vindicated Saturday, though he emphasized his opposition to Kelly’s chairwomanship had nothing to do with Kelly as a person, claiming he’d asked Pritzker to consider appointing Kelly to U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s seat during the brief time in 2020 when she was on a short list of possible running mates for Joe Biden.

But it’s not like Cullerton is nostalgic for the past where Madigan controlled the party; the two were not close during the decade they were counterparts leading the House and Senate.

“I can tell you that being the Senate President, we didn’t get a lot of money from the Democratic Party of Illinois,” he said.

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at outlets including WILL-AM/FM, Law360, The Daily Line and a temporary stint at political blog Capitol Fax before returning to the station in 2020.