CHICAGO — For decades, the Democratic Party of Illinois has been an antiquated outlier among state Democratic organizations, focusing on parochial fundraising instead of using its status as a staunchly blue state in a Midwest field of red to influence national politics.
But a year after former House Speaker Michael Madigan relinquished his ironclad control as state Democratic chairman, the state party has entered the 21st century — decentralizing its organization, putting together its first email list of supporters, digitizing outreach activities and creating a recruitment, training and support infrastructure for Democratic candidates in the Nov. 8 general election.
Madigan’s decision to step down amid a federal investigation that led to his indictment in March has also led to a host of competitive races in the June 28 primary for seats on a Democratic State Central Committee no longer content to serve as merely a rubber stamp for its leader.
“I’m hoping that people feel that it’s a party worth getting involved in and they want to get active,” said U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson, who replaced Madigan as state Democratic chair in March of last year.
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U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber’s leadership, said the races for state central committee seats are evidence of “a pent-up energy” after Madigan.
“They want to be part of the party structure and make it work. That’s a very positive thing,” he said.
While Durbin is not a member of the state central committee, he has significant influence over the party, which was evident in his endorsement of Kelly as the party’s first Black and female chair. Kelly won a close committee vote over Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s choice, Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th.
Kelly said she sees her role as providing more diverse and inclusive leadership, and said she spent the last year on a listening tour to “try to see what we could do better.”
“If people were active, what were their ideas? If people weren’t as active, what could we do to get them to be more active? How do we get more people involved with the party?” Kelly asked. “I’ve kind of lost count in all kinds of the places where what I heard was, ‘Wow, I was surprised to see the party chair.’”
Making Kelly the party’s chair wasn’t without controversy. As a federal officeholder, she is prohibited from raising money for state and local candidates because federal fundraising limits are tighter than Illinois’.
The state Democratic Party went to the Federal Election Commission for approval to spell out the separation of Kelly’s chairmanship from any state and local fundraising activities. As a result, fundraising has become more decentralized than it was under Madigan.
Under Madigan, the state Democratic Party was largely a fundraising vessel for state House campaigns at the expense of other state and federal offices. It operated with an antiquated infrastructure — one of its most valuable assets was its postage meter, which allowed Madigan to send out bulk mailings in House races at a lower rate.
Madigan’s power as the nation’s longest-serving House speaker, a role he held for 36 years, and as state party chairman for 23 years, could be seen in the fundraising totals of the first three months of last year, when the party raised $2 million. The state party had more than $2.6 million in the bank at the end of March 2021.
This quarter, the party’s state account raised more than $350,000 but ended March of this year with nearly $2.9 million in cash.
While the fundraising totals are down from a year ago, the party is no longer merely a pass-through fund for state House Democratic candidates, as it was under Madigan’s direction. Instead, through fundraising committees created as a result of the federal restrictions on Kelly, the party has been focusing on becoming a support organization for all Democratic candidates.
The $1 million the party had stored at the end of March 2021 for spending on federal races grew to nearly $1.4 million at the end of this March. Combined federal and state money raised by the Democrats totaled more than $712,000 — with little party spending expected until after the primary when the Democratic field is set.
“You’re seeing a totally new fundraising approach for the Democratic Party, and I have been really excited to see the number of people who are investing in the party,” said Abby Witt, the party’s executive director. “It was a little bit of an experiment that has turned out really well. We’re proud of it.”
The modernization of the party also is reflected in a comprehensive post-primary campaign for Democrats across the November ballot that is expected to be unveiled in coming days. Funded and led by the billionaire Pritzker, the coordinated campaign will also enlist the state party organization, the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association and other ancillary groups.
“You know, this is a challenging year and we shouldn’t take anything for granted,” Durbin said. “So let’s all get it together.”
The party’s evolution from the Madigan era also is seen in the development, from scratch, of a digital program, something Witt called a “core part of how campaigns need to communicate in 2022.″
Witt said Kelly “had this vision for a modern professional party” and how it communicates its message, as well as “trying to engage volunteers and organizers and activists who will get that message to their network.” The party is six months into developing its email program, and its mailing list now totals more than 100,000 people, she said.
For the messaging to work, the party has sought to bridge a void that had existed between the work of the Democratic National Committee and federal and state officeholders, often drawing a link between Democratic agenda items in Congress and within the state legislature. One example is a recent push by Democrats in Washington to limit insulin costs after Democrats in Springfield in 2019 established a $100 monthly cap for people covered by state-regulated insurance plans. The messaging effort has also extended to the media, which previously had been an afterthought.
The state party is also working with the county chairs’ association to develop and recruit candidates on the local and countywide level through a 12-week cohort program.
Of more immediate concern for the future of the party is the June primary when Democratic voters will select the 34-member state central committee members, one man and one woman from each of the state’s newly drawn 17 congressional districts.
There are contested elections for 20 of the 34 seats. The party’s various factions and interests are vying for a seat at a smaller table, the result of Illinois losing one central committee seat as a result of the U.S. census that reduced the number of congressional seats from 18 to 17.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush is stepping down from his 1st Congressional District seat at the end of his term, creating a cascade of candidates seeking to replace him, but is seeking reelection to the state central committee. He faces three challengers.
In the new 3rd Congressional District, current state central committeewoman Iris Martinez, the clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, faces two challengers including state Rep. Delia Ramirez of Chicago, who also is running for the congressional seat. For the committeeman’s seat, Ald. Gil Villegas, 36th, who also is vying for the congressional nomination, faces state Sen. Omar Aquino.
In the 5th Congressional District, former state Senate President John Cullerton, a current state central committee member, is facing a challenge from state Sen. Robert Martwick.
Cullerton voted against Kelly for chair, citing the complications of a federal officeholder raising money for state candidates. He said his proposal for a compromise, making Kelly a co-chair with Harris, was rejected.
“That’s still a big issue,” he said of Kelly’s state fundraising limitation. “It’s not the same thing to not have the actual chairman of the party raising and doing the fundraising.”
Still, Cullerton, a member of the Democratic National Committee, voted for Kelly as a co-chair of its Midwest regional committee, calls her a friend and says any differences are “intramural stuff.”
Kelly, who is expected to seek reelection as chair when the new state central committee is seated after the primary, said she has been satisfied with the progress the Democratic Party organization has made.
“What we were able to accomplish in 2021 leading up to my first year is definitely helping us as we move forward into these elections.” Kelly said. “People nationally are really excited Illinois is back in the mix.”
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