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Avoidance of risk, PAC money gave Kelly 2nd District nomination

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 10:16 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Sensing momentum in the closing days of the special Democratic primary campaign to replace the disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr., Robin Kelly's campaign announced that she would no longer engage her rivals at candidate forums, and her daily schedule of public events was sparse.

The risk-averse strategy, bolstered by $2.2 million in spending from the anti-gun super political action committee run by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, worked. But in a 2nd Congressional District without representation since June, where an absent Jackson was re-elected in November, Kelly will have to step up her public presence.

On the day after she walked away with more than half the vote in a 14-candidate field, Kelly made a thank-you visit to commuters at the Richton Park Metra station. She now goes on to face the Republican nominee, from a race that remains too close to call, in an April 9 special general election that will determine the district's new representative. Given that the 2nd District was drawn by Democrats to elect a Democrat, the outcome is considered a foregone conclusion in Illinois politics.

Kelly's anticipated move to Congress would become the latest of several taxpayer-funded jobs she has held in the past decade. Elected to the Illinois House in 2002, Kelly stayed there four years while also maintaining a job as director of community affairs for the village of Matteson, a post she began in 1992.

She left the General Assembly in 2007 to become chief of staff for then-Democratic Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. When Giannoulias made an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid in 2010, Kelly sought to replace him as treasurer. Shortly after losing to Republican Dan Rutherford, Kelly signed on as chief administrative officer in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's new administration.

In her victory speech, Kelly pledged to work with home-state President Barack Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in enacting stiffer gun-control legislation. But Kelly also might have thanked Bloomberg, an Emanuel ally whose Independence USA super PAC proved to be the most significant force in the contest.

Electronic records filed with the Federal Communications Commission by the four major network TV affiliates in Chicago, though incomplete, show Bloomberg's super PAC aired at least 1,079 30-second ads from Jan. 30 through Tuesday — about nine hours if run consecutively.

The super PAC tarnished Kelly's chief rival for the nomination, former one-term U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson of Crete, by citing Halvorson's previous support from the National Rifle Association. The group also aired ads later in the campaign endorsing Kelly.

Independence USA's overall spending, which also included some direct-mail pieces, was equivalent to about $72.23 for each vote Kelly received, based on unofficial vote totals in the low-turnout election.

By comparison, a CNN analysis found that Obama and his allies spent the equivalent of $25.33 per vote to win the battleground state of Ohio last year, while Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his allies spent $30.60 per vote in that state.

The ads might help explain how Kelly trounced another top-tier candidate, Anthony Beale, in the Chicago alderman's own 9th Ward. Kelly got 50 percent to Beale's 35 percent.

Kelly's campaign rejected repeated requests Monday evening and Tuesday for an in-depth interview on the problems facing the 2nd District. In a brief interview at the Metra stop Tuesday morning, she told WGN-TV she had not heard from Bloomberg and that "he doesn't know me from the man in the moon."

Giannoulias, Kelly's former boss, remains a political mentor and was a visible presence at her victory party Tuesday night at a Matteson hotel. Giannoulias said Kelly was his only choice for chief of staff as treasurer, adding that she served as a good complement to his sometimes fiery style.

"I am impatient by nature and like to move quickly and be more aggressive, and she was always there to calm things down, cool me down," Giannoulias said. "She's a great manager of people. All the people who worked in the state treasurer's office really loved her and respected her."

Giannoulias referred to Kelly as an older sister, recalling how she often carried a swear jar to staff meetings, requiring him to pay up for his propensity to curse.

"She actually made me swear less, because like a mother or a big sister, at every staff meeting she'd bring in her curse jar, and I'd drop an F-bomb here or there and she would make me put a quarter or dollar in," the former treasurer said. "Let's just say I bought her a few pairs of shoes over the years."

Giannoulias called Kelly a "breath of fresh air" for a district plagued with a history of scandal from its last three congressmen.

Still, Kelly initially sought to avoid questions raised by the Tribune about a state executive inspector general's allegation that she violated state ethics laws by improperly reporting time off from her job with Giannoulias. Kelly was running for state treasurer at the time of the 2010 investigation.

Kelly's camp ultimately insisted that the probe was a "Republican witch hunt," even though Democrat Giannoulias agreed to discipline two other employees connected to the alleged wrongdoing. Giannoulias also reappointed the treasurer's Executive Inspector General David Wells, who had recommended that Kelly be disciplined for her actions.

A subsequent audit into Kelly's time off, recommended by Wells after Republican Rutherford took office, found that Kelly regularly took time off before it was properly approved and that she had subordinates alter her time-off calendar weeks after she already had taken the time.

"I'm not perfect," Kelly said last week. "I'm not going to tell you I didn't make a mistake, but I did not do anything wrong. I turned in my time sheets. I docked my pay. I did everything I was supposed to. And nothing was found by anyone who counts."

When it came time to run for Congress late last year, Kelly opted to quit her county job as a top aide to Preckwinkle.

"The inspector general had his thoughts. He did his job," Giannoulias said. "Robin disagreed with him vehemently, and that's that."

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