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FEC rules US Rep. Robin Kelly cannot raise money for nonfederal candidates, leaving her largely a figurehead as Illinois Democratic chair

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 7/16/2021 Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune

The Federal Election Commission ruled Thursday that U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly cannot be involved in raising or spending money for state and local office candidates in her new role as Illinois Democratic chair, relegating her largely to figurehead status within the party.

Kelly, a member of Congress since 2013 from south suburban Matteson, is also prohibited from using her name and title on state fundraising solicitations because, as a federal officeholder, she is bound by federal laws on raising campaign cash that are stricter than those of the state.

Kelly can raise money for U.S. House and Senate candidates in her role as party chair because fundraising for those offices falls under the same federal rules that she is governed by as a member of Congress. But fundraising for federal offices represents a small portion of the state party’s activities.

Under the FEC’s 5-1 ruling, the state Democratic Party must create a special committee to oversee state fundraising for nonfederal campaigns with no involvement by Kelly. Some Democrats have estimated that 83% of the funds raised by the state party are for nonfederal state and local candidates.

Kelly was elected by top state Democrats March 3 to replace embattled former House Speaker Michael Madigan as party chair. But her election came amid questions over how as a federal officeholder she could engage in state fundraising for the party with higher dollar limits than federal law allows.

By being prohibited from money raising and spending decisions involving state candidates, the FEC’s ruling vastly reduces Kelly’s role and influence as chair. It will be a far cry from how Madigan used the chairmanship for years to retain power and ensure loyalty in raising money and doling out the party’s state funds to keep Democratic House majorities.

Madigan, who was speaker for nearly four decades and party chairman since 1998, stepped down from both posts early this year amid a federal influence-buying investigation involving Commonwealth Edison. ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine for giving jobs, contracts and other favors to try to gain Madigan’s influence. Madigan has not been charged and has denied any knowledge of the scheme.

Democrats sought the FEC ruling on an expedited basis as the party begins to gear up for 2022 elections. The party has a grip on all statewide offices as well as majorities in the General Assembly and congressional delegation. Those offices, as well as Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s seat, are on next year’s ballot.

In its ruling, the FEC followed a recommended draft order that acknowledged the state party can raise funds in amounts and from sources prohibited for federal candidates.

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But, it said, that would only be permitted if “the nonfederal account is administered by a special committee without the review or approval of Congresswoman Kelly and Congresswoman Kelly has no role in the appointment of any member of the special committee.”

As a result, the FEC said, “the nonfederal account would not be directly or indirectly established, financed, maintained or controlled by, or acting on behalf of, Congresswoman Kelly” in compliance with federal fundraising laws.

In addition, the FEC said Kelly’s “name and title as chair must not be included on the letterhead of any solicitation that solicits funds in amounts and from sources prohibited by (federal law) because using her name and title in that manner would identify the solicitation as being sent on Congresswoman Kelly’s behalf in violation of the (federal law).”

In a statement, Kelly said the FEC ruling “affirms my vision for a new Democratic Party of Illinois that encourages more voices to be involved in all aspects of the party.”

“As the first woman and first woman of color elected to chair DPI, I believe that a broader coalition of perspectives can only strengthen our party and help us elect more Democrats up and down the ballot,” she said.

Kelly said the party in coming days will now establish a separate state fundraising committee, “Building Leadership, Unity, and Equity,” or BLUE, to comply with the FEC ruling.

Federal Elections Commissioner James “Trey” Trainor, a Republican from Texas, voted in favor of the ruling but also contended federal campaign finance law has a chilling effect on allowing federal officeholders to serve in state partisan roles.

“Essentially, what we’re doing in this advisory opinion is turning the party chairmanship in Illinois into a purely honorary role, without the power to direct a very large portion of the activities that the Democratic Party of Illinois engages in,” Trainor said.

“My understanding is that Congresswoman Kelly ran on a platform of being more inclusive in the activities that take place in the party in Illinois,” he said. “And I think it is very significant, that we are excluding the first African American woman to ever hold this position in Illinois from engaging in those activities.”

Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic commissioner from New York, was the lone vote against the ruling. A strong supporter of federal campaign finance laws, Weintraub said she had concerns about a federal officeholder serving as leader of an organization that could raise money outside of federal limits, even if that is done through a special committee.

“I believe there are certainly many ways that the congresswoman could serve her party and be actively involved in most aspects of its activities,” Weintraub said.

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