By Emily Goodin - 04/08/13 11:51 PM EDT
The woman favored to win former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s seat in Tuesday’s special election is so close to President Obama she counted him among her wedding guests.
“When I got married, 10 years ago, he was at the wedding,” former Illinois state Rep. Robin Kelly told The Hill.
Kelly, 56, worked on Obama’s Senate and presidential campaigns and remains close to both the president and members of his inner circle. One of the Obama family’s best friends, Cheryl Whitaker, served as Kelly’s campaign chairwoman.
And Obama called Kelly after she won the Feb. 26 Democratic primary to congratulate her. Last week he officially endorsed her candidacy — a notable move, because he rarely gets involved in congressional races.
“I have known Robin for many years and I am confident she is the perfect choice to represent the Illinois 2nd Congressional District,” Obama said in a statement.
The Kelly-Obama ties go back to 2003, when she was a state representative and he was a state senator.
One of the bills they passed together in their time in the Illinois House was on gun safety — “It dealt with straw purchases of guns,” Kelly said.
Obama mentioned that work in his endorsement; he’s continuing to push for Congress to pass tighter gun control laws in the wake of December’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.
“I share Robin’s passionate advocacy to end gun violence with common sense solutions because like her, I believe families impacted by gun violence — especially in my home city of Chicago — deserve a vote,” he said.
Given the Jackson seat’s deep-blue roots — Obama won it in 2012 with 81 percent — she is widely expected to defeat Republican Paul McKinley in Tuesday’s general election.
But she first had to win a primary in which her work on gun control became a central issue.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA super-PAC invested $2.2 million on Kelly’s behalf, citing her pro-gun-control stance.
Kelly downplayed Bloomberg’s role in the campaign, saying she hasn’t spoken to the mayor.
“I don’t know him, have nothing to do with him, didn’t know what he was going to do or show or anything like that. He got involved in the last month of the race, and I did a lot of work before he got involved and built momentum.
“I know people talk about Mayor Bloomberg but, really, on this issue, people that didn’t know me from sea to shining sea sent money.”
Her work on the issue speaks for itself, she noted.
“Throughout my adult life I have done things to thwart violence — period. I lost a cousin to domestic violence and a really good volunteer in the same year: 2004,” Kelly said. “In the last years, the things that are happening in Chicago, even if you’re not related to the person, it’s so impactful.
“People are living in fear in their neighborhoods.”
Gun violence is Chicago has become national news. Its murder rate has surpassed New York City’s, and first lady Michelle Obama attended the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, a Chicago teenager killed a week after performing at the president’s second inauguration.
Part of the 2nd congressional district encompasses the city’s notorious South Side.
Kelly coalesced the support of party elders, like Democratic Reps. Danny Davis, Bobby Rush, Jan Schakowsky and Mike Quigley. And one of her strongest Democratic rivals, state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, dropped out of the primary and endorsed Kelly.
The two women, who are both African-American, shared a similar base of support and could have made it easier for former Rep. Debbie Halvorson to win. Hutchinson’s exit significantly improved Kelly’s chances in the heavily African-American district.
So did Kelly’s position on the ballot: She had the top spot out of 15 candidates running on the Democratic ticket.
Kelly’s political career began in 2002, when she was director of community affairs for Matheson village in Chicago, where she still lives, and was asked to run for office.
“I was minding my business one day,” she said, when she was asked to run for state representative.
“I was shocked and said no at first and then talked to my friends, family,” she said, adding that she “just decided to take a leap of faith and do it.”
She challenged a 10-year incumbent state representative in the Democratic primary, winning with 81 percent of the vote.
One big early supporter of her career was Jackson, who Kelly is vying to replace after he resigned due to health issues and questions about his use of his campaign account. In early February, Jackson admitted to violating federal campaign law by using campaign funds to make personal purchases.
Jackson backed Kelly when she first ran for the state legislature and during her unsuccessful campaign to be state treasurer in 2010.
She has not spoken to him during this campaign or since she secured the Democratic nomination.
Kelly served in the Illinois General Assembly from 2003-2007. She had won reelection in 2006 but resigned to become chief of staff to then-state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, whose campaign she worked on. When Giannoulias ran for Senate in 2010, she ran for his old office and lost by 5 points.
She was appointed chief administrative officer for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in 2011.
Born in New York, Kelly completed her higher education in Illinois, obtaining a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Bradley University in Peoria and her doctorate from Northern Illinois University.
She said it was the schooling that kept her in the state — and her family. “Husbands have had me stay here,” she joked in her interview with The Hill.
It was her second wedding, to Nathaniel Horn, that Obama attended. Kelly has two children from her first marriage.
Besides gun control, another issue Kelly plans on pushing in Congress is bringing more businesses to her district.
“We need jobs,” she said.