Chicago Democrats pitching 2024 convention present picture of unity to national party despite tension over leadership battle

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CHICAGO — Illinois’ top Democrats gathered on a Fulton Market venue stage Tuesday in an attempt to present a unified front to national party officials reviewing Chicago’s 2024 presidential convention bid, masking an intensifying battle over control of the state Democratic Party.

Illinois Democratic Chair Robin Kelly stood near Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who is backing state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez of Cicero for the top party post in a vote set for Saturday, and later acknowledged the tensions aren’t a plus in Chicago’s bid for the convention.

“Any division doesn’t help, you know,” the congresswoman from Matteson told reporters of the intraparty battle amid the Democratic National Committee’s logistical review of city convention and hotel venues. “Hopefully they’re going to look at the city of Chicago and what the city has to offer and we are all united on bringing the convention to Chicago.”

Pritzker made the same argument during the event. “We’re all standing here in unison, standing up for a Democratic convention for Chicago and for the state of Illinois,” he said.

Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, sought to separate the state chairmanship battle from the DNC’s efforts to find a national stage to showcase President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as the party’s agenda and its diversity.

“In the end, the Illinois Democratic Party, like all of our state parties, will choose who they want to be their chair. And you know, that’s happening now. 2024 is a few years from now. So, we’re focusing on this week. We’re focusing on the convention,” he said.

Still, the jockeying over control of the organization overseeing the state’s dominant political party is a major distraction to the city’s effort to host Democrats’ largest quadrennial event, which is projected to bring in 50,000 people and generate upward of $200 million in revenue. In addition, Illinois Democrats are trying to secure an early date for the state primary in the 2024 presidential election.

In discussing what he was looking for in a convention site, Harrison said he wanted a “turnkey operation.”

“We understand that the experiences of the delegates and the experiences of the press are really, really important,” Harrison said. “I don’t want people going out into the hinterlands trying to find their hotel, right? We need them to all be there. We don’t need to have big traffic, confusion and all. I need it all to work. I want the attention 100% to be on Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and the Democratic Party.”

Kelly, a five-term congresswoman, was narrowly elected party chair by the state central committee in March of last year over Pritzker’s choice, Chicago Alderwoman Michelle Harris, 8th. She is filling out the term of longtime chairman and powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, who resigned and was later indicted on corruption charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty.

But Kelly’s election was accompanied by controversy. As a federal officeholder, she is sharply limited in her fundraising ability because federal campaign finance laws have lower limits and more restrictions on donations than state law.

The Federal Election Commission ultimately approved a party structure that prevents Kelly from raising funds for state candidates, which has been the bulk of the party fundraising, in favor of an internal committee. Kelly is allowed to raise money for federal candidates.

Pritzker, Hernandez and allies on the state central committee have complained that the federal restrictions have kept the party from embarking on a strong fundraising program, and that the party has yet to adequately prepare for get-out-the-vote, vote-by-mail and voter integrity programs ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.

Kelly and her supporters argue they have modernized the party after decades in which it was merely an extension of Madigan’s House Democrat fundraising operation by decentralizing and diversifying its leadership structure and making efforts to extend the party’s influence to the national stage.

“We will be ready,” Kelly said of the fall general election campaign.

As Kelly and Hernandez lobby the 34 members of the Democratic State Central Committee, the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington issued a statement endorsing Kelly’s reelection.

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip, called Kelly “the epitome of who and what Democrats are” and said she “leads by example.” And the U.S. House Democratic Caucus chair, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, called Kelly “the present and the future.”

Longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago, who sits on the state central committee, joined in the Black Caucus’ support for Kelly and said “we cannot and should not abandon” her.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, the first Black legislator to hold the position, is backing Hernandez, who’s a member of his leadership team. On Tuesday, Welch said Hernandez, if elected, would ask Kelly to continue to play a leadership role in the party as its “federal chair” — a position that quickly won the support of the state’s umbrella organization for organized labor, the Illinois AFL-CIO.

“It is critical that DPI (Democratic Party of Illinois) is able to accept, raise and spend funds that support all Democratic candidates across the state. Right now, DPI does not and cannot do that. If a leadership change occurs, it will,” Welch said in a statement.

Kelly said Harrison, the DNC chair, was asked about such a structure when she was elected in March 2021 and replied that “each state has one chair.”

Chicago is one of four finalists to host the Democrat’s 2024 presidential nominating convention, along with New York, Atlanta and Houston. DNC members were greeted at the introductory Fulton Market event by the Soul Children of Chicago choir and Secretary of State Jesse White’s Tumblers.

Harrison disregarded talk of selecting a site based on the potential of turning the host state blue, noting that Democrats lost Pennsylvania and North Carolina after conventions in Philadelphia and Charlotte.

Instead, he said a premium was being placed on a city that “represents the Democratic Party’s values, diversity, inclusion, opportunity.”

Pritzker, whose recent trips to address Democrats in New Hampshire and Florida prompted speculation of a potential presidential run if Biden opts not to seek reelection, said the national party’s agenda represents a “policy alignment that we share in the state of Illinois.”

“That is critical for the story that the DNC must tell in 2024, and especially about our great president and vice president, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” he said.

The last Democratic presidential convention in Chicago was in 1996, where Bill Clinton was nominated for a second term at the United Center. People involved in the transformation of the United Center for that event still work at the facility and understand the logistics needed to serve a convention, city officials said.

The DNC, which is looking to the 2024 convention as a massive showcase after the pandemic curtailed the 2020 festivities, also is considering satellite venues such as the Wintrust Arena in the South Loop.

Gaining the convention would be a major victory for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, embattled in her bid for reelection by issues of crime and her management of the city. The issue of crime and gun violence was not raised at the event, but Lightfoot said “a convention of this size and visibility would be tremendously beneficial to this city and give us an opportunity to claim our narrative on a global stage.”

Following the economic consequences of the pandemic, Lightfoot said to DNC officials, “We’re back. We’re ready. And why not Chicago?”