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Freshman Rep. Robin Kelly marked by ‘deep, human connection’

DemocrRobKelly winner 2nd Congressional District race Tuesday night.  |  Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Democrat Robin Kelly, winner of the 2nd Congressional District race, on Tuesday night. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 15, 2013 7:00AM



When U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill) is asked how to pronounce the name of the town she calls home, she answers proudly.

“I say Matt-e-son. Three-syllables,” Kelly says, giving the correct historical pronunciation of the Chicago south suburb, whose name is often butchered by outsiders.

Though she was born and raised out of state, Kelly, 56, has lived in the south suburb for 20 years, developing a loyal group of friends who go on annual trips together, visit the theater and dine at Kelly’s home on Christmas night.

The newest member of Illinois’ congressional delegation was born and raised in Manhattan, where Kelly was the daughter of a New York shop owner who spent long hours manning the business.

Kelly, too, would work lengthy shifts there, one friend says.

“She would tell me about working long hours at the store. Maybe that helped determine her deciding she wanted to go to school,” said Ald. Deborah Graham (29th).

Graham and Kelly became close when the two served in the same “class” in the Illinois Legislature 10 years ago.

“When you own a business, you gotta work hard at that business … Like every other family, their family had issues, but they would rally together. You had to work for it. New York was a really diverse place. She’s very used to diversity and you had to work for a living and the store was their living.”

For the years she was developing her career, Kelly was known as a “work horse” who unlike most politicians, didn’t have an ego, said another longtime friend, Mike Jordan.

“Her head could easily fit into the smallest of rooms,” he said of her lacking an ego. “Hers fits easily into a coffee can.”

Kelly also has a knack for remaining calm, he says.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen her greatly upset,” Jordan said. She isn’t the type to say: “If I can outshout you, I can get my point across. She’s quick to listen, actively listens to people and genuinely nice about that.”

‘I better be prepared’

During a tough primary race early this year, Kelly was catapulted to the national scene as a gun reform advocate because of a $2.2 million cash infusion that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put into attack ads against her opponents, who had more conservative views on guns.

As she now lands in Washington — having been sworn in on Thursday — great expectations rest on her shoulders.

“Well, if people are looking at me like that, I better be prepared,” Kelly said in an interview on Friday. Kelly has vowed to take a different route than her predecessor, Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned in disgrace in November and later pleaded guilty to federal charges.

The mother of two adult kids said no family members will be on her campaign fund payroll. On the flipside, Kelly recognizes Jackson’s longevity — 17 years — in the U.S. House with a seat on the U.S. Appropriations Committee meant he had the potential to bring the goods back to the South Side and south suburban 2nd Congressional District.

“The Congressman was here for 17 years and this is my first day, I think realistically, do people expect me to be at that level? I don’t think so,” Kelly said.

Jordan said Kelly has made it clear that constituent services, such as answering questions on Social Security or health care, will be priority in a district that has gone without representation since last June.

Guns ‘made me feel very uneasy’

Kelly’s top issue isn’t a secret. She said in her victory speech Tuesday that she couldn’t wait to “take on the NRA,” and fight for gun reform. She said it’s long been a key issue of hers.

“Long before this, issues of child abuse and domestic violence were very important to me, so it’s not something new,” Kelly said.

She’s had uncles who were police officers and relatives who were hunters. But she’s never owned a weapon.

“They just made me feel very uneasy,” she said. In an interview with the Sun-Times earlier this year, Kelly choked up as she talked about a campaign volunteer of hers whose spouse shot her to death.

What’s needed in Washington, she said, is a combination of changes. “Reasonable gun safety, closing the gun show loopholes, mentoring programs for kids, access to mental health, parents knowing where kids are,” she said.

In 1973, Kelly left New York to attend Bradley University in Peoria.

She would go on to work as a minority affairs administrator at Bradley. She worked in a number of public capacities, including with the Village of Matteson, as an elected state lawmaker, then as chief of staff to onetime Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. She made a run for Illinois state treasurer herself, winning the Democratic primary but losing in the general election in 2010.

Kelly was among Toni Preckwinkle’s first hires when the Cook County Board President won the November 2010 election. Kelly was earning $172,519 annually, according to payroll records. The average congressman makes about $174,000.

She moved around the public sector, which makes her one day eligible for pensions on the state and municipal level and now on the federal level. Kelly notes that she contributed to her pensions and that because of reciprocal agreements, isn’t making a boon off the state.

Kelly resigned from Preckwinkle’s office in December to fully commit to running for office. Preckwinkle though initially endorsed Kelly’s onetime friend and new rival — Toi Hutchinson. Hutchinson later dropped out of the race, and she and Preckwinkle backed Kelly. Kelly insists there’s no hard feelings against Preckwinkle, noting after her primary win that the two had just gotten off the phone.

‘It’s Robin Kelly’s district now’

After her February primary win, when Kelly bested 15 candidates, political strategist Eric Adelstein said he was struck by something when he saw Kelly interact with people.

“It’s remarkable to me, there’s relationships and there’s relationships,” Adelstein said. “The thing with Robin is when you see her with friends and supporters there’s a deep, human connection. There’s a fondness for her as a … public servant.”

When she was sworn in, Kelly noted it was time for a new era in the 2nd congressional district.

What did she mean? “That it’s Robin Kelly’s district now, and we’re going to move forward, it’s a new person in office and we’re going to move forward … it’s not about me, it’s about the people I serve,” she said.

‘A great big sister’

Kelly, a Sigma Gamma Rho sorority member, easily made bonds with others in the sorority, many of whom like to take annual trips together, including to New York and once on a Meditteranean cruise where a group of 53 people — including Kelly and her family — traveled together.

“Robin is the person in the south suburbs that whatever sort of good work is being done, people call her and ask for help,” said longtime friend Diane Williams of Flossmoor. “She is the exact kind of person we need to serve in that district. She is a sincere person who believes her job is to serve the people … instead of having any kinds of thoughts of grandeur.”

But she knows how to have fun. The trips with other friends included a visit to New York when they all met up with funnyman Chris Rock after a performance.

“We loved to do plays, and if something’s playing here at the Goodman, we wouldn’t catch it before the last week it played, we didn’t care, we’d catch it in New York,” Graham said.

Then, there’s the shoes.

“We’re the shoe ladies. We love to purchase shoes. When Robin would travel, she would bring me back a trinket, a scarf or a pair of shoes,” Graham said.

“She’s a great big sister. She’s very supportive.”



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