Rep. Robin Kelly (2nd), who represents East Hyde Park in Congress, is running to be the Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus, the sixth-highest-ranking position in the House majority.
“As a Black woman and Midwesterner, I will provide a unique voice in leadership discussions and serve as a visible reminder of our caucus’s racial, gender and geographical diversity,” Kelly wrote to her colleagues on Sept. 16, announcing her candidacy.
“I want to help each and every member — from the most vulnerable frontline freshman, to the safest most senior committee chair — to get the best for your constituents, advance our legislative agenda, and raise the bar for what the Democratic Caucus achieves in the 117th Congress,” Kelly wrote. “I will place strong emphasis on member services and will support our caucus chair, our members and their staffs as we promote our message and invest in inclusive strategic narratives that amplify our voices and impact our districts.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) leads the chamber and her Democratic majority, aided by her floor leaders, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (S.C.). Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) is assistant speaker, a position seen as a sort of “speaker-in-waiting,” but he will leave the chamber in January because he is running for a Senate seat.
All Democratic representatives are members of the House Democratic Caucus, which approves committee assignments, caucus rules, enforces discipline and meets weekly to develop policy and legislative priorities. The incumbent caucus vice chair, suburban Boston Rep. Katharine Clark, is running for the assistant speaker position, opening the door for Kelly.
If elected, Kelly said she would focus on assisting the caucus chair, currently outer-borough Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), as well as on member services. Travel would become a more integral part of the job — in an interview, Kelly recounted how Jeffries and Clark braved last year’s polar vortex to come to the 1st district to advice her staff during a retreat.
"I've always looked at myself as a servant-leader, I guess, and in my office … my joy comes from if we can get a constituent a benefit they deserve or solve a problem so that can be successful," she said. "I feel the same way about my colleagues I serve with everyday. We're doing all we can do so the colleagues are successful."
If she gets the job, she said, she and her staff would remain fully committed to solving constituent services.
In addition to work with rank-and-file Democratic representatives, Kelly noted that the position would enable her to work closely alongside Pelosi and other leaders to set the Democratic agenda.
“This moment in our nation’s history demands that all of us look inward and ask ourselves what we have to offer and what we can do to leave this country better for generations to come,” she wrote to her colleagues. “I am confident that the measure of my experience and my commitment to serving each and every one of you will help the Democratic Caucus of the 117th Congress be the change this nation so desperately needs.”
Kelly said she began to think seriously about seeking a party leadership position earlier this year, pointing to her experience chairing the Congressional Black Caucus' Health Brain Trust, co-chairing the Democratic Policy Group, a moderate think tank, and vice-chairing Pelosi's Gun Violence Prevention Taskforce.
Additionally, Kelly founded and co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls and, on Sept. 14, introduced the bipartisan Protecting Black Women and Girls Act of 2020, which would establish an interagency task force to examine conditions of Black women and girls in education, economic development, health care, labor, employment, housing, civil rights and justice and address ways to mitigate harmful impacts therein.
Reached for comment, Rep. Bobby Rush (1st), who represents the rest of Hyde Park-Kenwood in the House, released a statement: "My friend Robin Kelly has had a very distinguished and highly productive congressional career. We serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee together, and she has been a highly regarded leader on multiple issues. She texted me this very morning to tell me she was running and saying she would be calling me in the next few days to discuss her candidacy."
Kelly will have opponents for the position: Inland Empire Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.) has already announced his candidacy for the vice chairmanship, and Albuquerque Rep. Deb Haaland (N.M.), a freshman, is expected to do so.
A New York City native, Kelly moved to Illinois to attend college and lives in south suburban Matteson. She previously served in the Illinois House of Representatives. She won a special election to the U.S. House in 2013. Her congressional district spans down the lakefront along the Indiana border through the suburbs and down to Kankakee.
Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn have held House Democrats’ top three leadership positions since President George W. Bush was in office, and each are in their 80s. When the party re-took the House majority in 2018, the Associated Press reported that the three were “pledging to bring up the next generation of Democratic leaders” and acknowledging that “their time at the helm of the new House majority could be limited.”
Asked about the prospect of even higher office, should vacancies arise at the top, Kelly replied, "How about this: one step at a time."