SPRINGFIELD — The vote for state Rep. Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez as the Democratic Party of Illinois’ first Latino chairwoman was unanimous and uneventful Saturday morning — the drama had occurred in the days prior in a power struggle of some of the state’s most prominent Democrats.
Hernandez was backed Gov. J.B. Pritzker and House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch. She served with Welch on a special investigating committee of House Speaker Michael Madigan in 2020, which chose to take no action against the speaker for his alleged role in a yearslong bribery scheme with a public utility. Several months later, Madigan was indicted.
The new DPI chair also played prominently in the redistricting process last year in the General Assembly, chairing the House committee on redistricting and frequently stonewalling inquiries as to what data was used to draw new maps. Ultimately, Democrats passed the new maps on partisan lines.
The 34 members of the Democratic State Central Committee— one man and one woman for each of the state’s 17 congressional districts — elected her by voice vote over outgoing chair Robin Kelly, who was backed by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
Kelly, a congresswoman from suburban Matteson, pulled herself from the running less than 24 hours earlier after it became apparent Hernandez had secured the requisite number of votes to replace her.
Kelly was elected chair just more than 16 months ago in what was also a tight and contentious race between her and Pritzker’s chosen candidate, Chicago Alderwoman Michelle Harris. She maintained strong support this year among some members of the state central committee and drew high praise from its downstate members.
Hernandez offered praise for Kelly in a statement, and the pair shared a brief embrace before the meeting began. But the fact that neither Kelly nor Hernandez took questions from the media underscored the fact that the wounds of the fight might still be fresh.
“I have deep respect and admiration for Congresswoman Robin Kelly and appreciate everything she has done to support Illinois Democrats. I’ve spoken with Congresswoman Kelly and we are both ready to move forward in a united fashion,” Hernandez said, reading aloud from a prepared written statement before leaving without answering any questions from the media.
Kelly read from a prepared statement as well in running her final meeting as DPI chair.
“When I was elected to this position last year, one of the first things I did was get in my car and drive south for a listening tour,” she said. “I heard a lot of things that first listening tour, but the thing that stuck out the most to me was how many people came up to me and said things to the effect that ‘I’ve never seen anyone from the state party here before, let alone the chair.’ People were so excited just to feel like their party saw them, heard them and cared enough to show up for them.”
Kelly took over after former Speaker Madigan, who led the party from 1998 until February last year. Madigan frequently faced criticism for the party’s lack of outreach and the fact that he mostly used the party to elect state House Democrats. He stepped down after failing to gain reelection as speaker in January 2021.
Some of the committeemen serving downstate congressional districts said Friday that once Kelly became chair, it was the first time they felt involved in the party.
Peter Janko, a committeeman from McHenry County in the 11th congressional district, said Kelly’s leadership was “like a brand-new day.” Terry Redman, of DeWitt County in the 15th congressional district, had similar sentiments.
“Finally, downstate Illinois got some attention, and that’s all because of you,” he said in thanking Kelly for her effort as chair. “And I certainly hope that continues.”
After the meeting, Redman said he spoke to Hernandez who told him she was committed to paying continued attention to downstate.
“It’s too big of an area to write off, let’s put it that way,” Redman said. “So I think we’ll do just fine under the new leadership.”
State Rep. Will Davis, a Hazel Crest Democrat and member of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, said he didn’t like how the race played out on racial lines, and how the governor worked so hard to sway support to oust Kelly, the party’s first Black female chair. “Of course I’m still concerned about where it takes the party, and I shared this with the new chair, that you know, there’s still some race issues that need to be addressed and she’s going to have to work hard and figure out how to mend those fences,” he said.
Pritzker’s camp maintained throughout the race that his opposition to Kelly’s reelection centered on the fact that she was a federal officeholder, which meant she wasn’t legally allowed to raise funds to directly support state candidates.
“Look, what we’re looking to accomplish, I think all of us who care about the Democratic Party, is to make sure that we have representation from all the diverse constituencies, and making sure that we have leadership that can accomplish the goals that we want to set out to do, which is to beat Republicans and make sure that the party is doing what it needs to do,” Pritzker said at a news conference Friday morning.
Davis accused the governor of “twisting arms,” saying that while “money and politics reared its ugly head,” Democrats now must work to unify to support candidates in November.
It’s something Hernandez promised to do in her brief statement.
“I plan to sit down with every member of the State Central Committee, our executive branch candidates, Democratic caucus leaders, committees for the two Democratic Supreme Court candidates, members of DPI staff and other stakeholders to ensure their vision for our party is incorporated into the apparatus we will build to hold Republicans accountable and win in November,” she said.