By CARL GREEN
Collinsville, IL – Metro-East Labor leaders made some room last week for Illinois’ new Democratic Party chair, U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Chicago, who was on a downstate “listening tour.”
Kelly, 65, in Congress since 2013, said she comes from a Labor family and learned the values of organizing at an early age.
“I’ve never been in a union, but I came from a family that are union folks. I know I have benefited from health care, delivering my kids and getting my education because of the work the union people in my family provided.”
Kelly spoke to the membership of the Southwestern Illinois Building & Construction Trades Council at its meeting at the IBEW Local 309 hall. She holds a PhD in political science from Northern Illinois University, and a master’s in counseling and bachelor’s in psychology from Bradley University in Peoria. Her husband is a doctor and they have two adult children.
She served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 2003 to 2007, before her election to Congress to succeed Jesse Jackson, Jr. in 2013 on the south side of Chicago. She has won re-election ever since with rising margins and her voting record ranks 96 percent with the AFL-CIO.
A DAUNTING TASK
Kelly now faces the daunting task of replacing the legendary Democratic leader Mike Madigan as party chief. Her tenure began on March 3. She said a top goal is to bring former Democrats back into the fold.
“We want to see how we can bring people home again,” she said. “I want people to know that they’re valued, no matter where they live, that they are appreciated and that their voices are important.”
Kelly said she isn’t giving up on any part of Illinois, no matter how “red” they have voted in recent elections.
“We need everybody on board,” she said. “We need everybody pulling in the same direction. When you look at all the states surrounding us, Illinois is an oasis in the sand. We are the strong union state, when you look at the other states, and we want to get stronger.”
‘FANTASTIC PUBLIC SERVANT’
Kelly was introduced by Madison County Democratic Party Chairman Randy Harris, a Laborers organizer who took the party post in 2020. He began the introduction by pointing out how Madigan built the Illinois Democrats into a juggernaut while leading the House of Representatives through dozens of forward steps.
“You can say what you want about Mike Madigan, but he won an awful lot of elections,” Harris said, adding that Kelly is a most fitting successor to lead the party.
“Robin Kelly is a fantastic public servant,” he said. “She’ll be a very good person to lead the Democratic Party of Illinois. She’s taken an interest in coming downstate, and coming down here today and seeing what you all have to say.”
“Robin is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat,” he added. “She is with Labor, 100 percent. She is one of the people who are with us.”
State Rep. Jay Hoffman, (D-Swansea), the longest-serving member of the Illinois House, accompanied Kelly on her swing through the area and noted that they worked together in the House.
“You’ll find nobody who works harder for working families, for Organized Labor, for great jobs and economic opportunity for all,” he said.
Kelly also has her work cut out for her, Hoffman added.
“We in Illinois have been very lucky to have Democrats in positions of power, but now we’re going to have to fight to make sure we re-elect the governor and make sure we elect additional members of Congress,” he said. “Robin’s going to lead that effort, not only the messaging but also the day-to-day organization and efforts. I know she’s going to be a great partner with Organized Labor.”
Totsie Bailey, executive secretary treasurer of the Trades Council, noted that Kelly is the daughter of a small business owner and a postal worker and also has served as chief administrator of Cook County and chief of staff for the Illinois Treasurer’s office.
“She’s just a great politician,” he said. “I’m honored to have her down here.”
GETTING THE WORD OUT
The leaders at the meeting agreed that the Democratic Party needs to do a better job of showing voters how their actions and policies benefit the state’s working families, frequently citing Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s infrastructure legislation, which is keeping union workers well-supplied with projects throughout the state and could do more in the future.
“There will be all kinds of jobs as a result of that infrastructure bill – and that’s because of the Democrats,” Hoffman noted. “We want to make sure that these projects still in the queue here get done. If a Republican gets elected governor, the Metro-East won’t be treated so fairly.”
The good effects of President Joe Biden’s legislation should also be more acknowledged nationally, Harris said.
“We need to do a better job of messaging and talk about what we’re doing,” he said. “With the American Rescue Plan, not one Republican voted for that bill. And that bill brought money back. Every town across the United States got money.”
The new party chair couldn’t agree more.
“We’re here to lift Democrats, and to find more Democrats and bring Democrats home,” Kelly said.