State Democrats trying to make their Big Tent much bigger

click to enlarge Democratic chair Robin Kelly
Democratic chair Robin Kelly

Rich Miller's article in IT's Sept. 1 edition (Problems abound for Dems' new BLUE Committee) basically concludes that current efforts to build a strong and inclusive Democratic State Party won't matter much. This might be true if Democrats across the state were interested in maintaining the status quo of centralized, insular leadership and control. But they're not.

As a member of the State Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Illinois, I'm hearing optimism about the changes underway. In the area I represent – the 18th Congressional District – Democrats have felt forgotten and ignored by the party for decades. Yet they persisted. Our county parties, often in rural, Republican-dominated areas, have doggedly pursued party-building against great odds. Party loyalists, allied groups and individuals have persevered to uphold Democratic Party values and have been steadfast, despite little hope of electoral success.

Unlike Rich Miller's dismissive characterization, the Democrats in my district are energized by the new vision of diversity and inclusion being promoted by our new state party chair, Congresswoman Robin Kelly. And it's not just those in the 18th who are excited by the new direction of the Democratic Party of Illinois. State Party Chair Robin Kelly and a majority of State Central Committee members representing urban, suburban and rural districts are all embracing change and stepping up to make it happen.

Democrats have always had a "big-tent" philosophy but we know we can do better. We know that, at its best, the Democratic Party of Illinois (DPI) must tap into and empower all, equally, to maximize our potential. Democrats know that a strong Democratic Party of Illinois is the cornerstone for providing critical pathways for political participation and engagement of citizens. Robin Kelly embodies these principles in all her work and made them the centerpiece of her run for the position.

In fact, Chair Kelly's first official visit as DPI chair was to Springfield to stump for local candidates. She recently completed the first leg of her promised "listening tour," visiting Rock Island, Belleville, Collinsville, Edwardsville, Marion, Springfield, Champaign, Bloomington-Normal and Rockford. Weeks after her election, Chair Kelly commissioned eight ad hoc committees to explore ways to update our party structure and enhance our effectiveness. Under Kelly's leadership, DPI has hired a new executive director, Abby Witt, and is in the process of additional hiring to continue to build a team to support party-building across the state. We are elevating our use of data and other best practices, increasing our communication with State Central Committee members and creating regular opportunities to stimulate feedback.

The new BLUE committee (the subject of Rich's column) falls squarely in line with these values of inclusivity and activism. State party fundraising under this structure involves the participation of active Democrats across the state, allows DPI to expand our fundraising capacity to include other effective grassroots methods of raising funds and begins a new era of investment and accountability for Illinois Democrats. Our new bylaws also codify the ability for the party chair to create other standing committees chaired by members of the State Central Committee and, for the first time, expands the membership of those committees to include non-state central committee members so that DPI involves the expertise and experience of those doing crucial work around the state. All of this will involve thousands of grassroots Democrats working together to raise the resources and provide the infrastructure needed to support county parties and candidates from Metro East to Rockford and Chicago to Quincy.

I am respectfully asking all Democrats and anyone who supports our values to join with us to help build a strong, effective, diverse and inclusive Democratic Party of Illinois. We must resist the tendency to revert to the familiar and constantly ask ourselves if we have spread our net wide enough. There will be some growing pains as we transition toward this exciting future but, in the end, we will all work together to get the job done. That's what Democrats do.

Sheila Stocks-Smith of Springfield represents the 18th Congressional District on the Democratic Party State Central Committee.

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