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Kadner: Robin Kelly: From New York to Illinois

RobKelly speaks supporters Holiday Inn Mattesfollowing her wspecial Democratic primary for 2nd Congressional District seFebruary 26 2013.  | JessicKoscielniak

Robin Kelly speaks to supporters at the Holiday Inn Matteson following her win in the special Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat, February 26, 2013. | Jessica Koscielniak ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: April 1, 2013 11:52AM



Her grandmother purchased a shop in the 1940s and then notified her husband “we’re in the grocery store business.”

That grocery store in New York’s Harlem neighborhood would be instrumental in forming Robin Kelly’s work ethic as she grew up.

Kelly, 56, who won the Democratic primary election for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s congressional seat on Tuesday, is now a national figure.

She’s the face for national gun control legislation due to $2.2 million in TV commercials purchased by a political action committee financed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Many commentators are claiming that those commercials, promoting Kelly and slamming opponent Debbie Halvorson for getting an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, resulted in the landslide victory for Kelly.

“I have never met Michael Bloomberg,” Kelly said. “And I was for gun control long before this campaign. The first piece of legislation I passed in the Illinois Legislature required stiffer penalties for the straw purchase of guns.”

Kelly came to Illinois in 1973 to attend Bradley University.

“A Bradley recruiter came to my high school and lied, well, he just sort of exaggerated, about Bradley University,” she said. “He talked about how Peoria was the second-largest city in Illinois, midway between Chicago and St. Louis, and it just sounded wonderful to me.

“I thought it would be like traveling between New York and Boston. It was a year before I made it to Chicago and three years before I got to St. Louis.”

Kelly would eventually form a lasting devotion to Bradley, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She serves on its board of trustees and was inducted into the university’s Centurion Society for honored alumni.

While a student, she struggled financially as a young mother, which is why she later created a scholarship program for students.

“It’s not for entering freshmen,” Kelly explained, “but for people who get to college and then have financial difficulties.

“I met a lot of students over the years, and I was one myself, who manage to get into college but then have trouble staying there because of the cost.”

One of the Kelly scholarship recipients, Michelle Mills, introduced Kelly to a crowd of supporters at her campaign kick-off rally this year. She spoke of Kelly’s impact on her life, how she went on to receive a graduate degree and entered the business world.

“Mentoring young people is something I learned about early in life because many people mentored me after my parents were divorced,” Kelly said.

She said one of those people was her grandmother, but she also learned from the example of her father.

“That grocery store was the center of our universe growing up,” Kelly said. “My grandparents lived above the store. My father worked there seven days a week.

“My brother and I worked there, even after my parents moved out of Harlem to the Upper West Side to a neighborhood called Washington Heights.”

After college, Kelly became a social worker and director of the crisis nursery at Crittenton Care and Counseling Center in Peoria.

“It was basically a place that cared for abused children as their parents got help,” she said.

According to the Crittenton Care website, it cares for children from 6 weeks to 6 years of age.

“My interest in violence and its impact on children started back then,” Kelly said. “It isn’t something new for me.”

She eventually worked at a youth shelter and then at Bradley University as minority student services director.

After divorcing her first husband, she married Dr. Nathaniel Horn, who runs an erectile dysfunction clinic in Chicago. Horn graduated from Bradley with degrees in sociology and psychology and went to medical school at Southern Illinois University. They each have two children from previous marriages.

Kelly moved to Matteson about 20 years ago, a middle-class suburb that was struggling economically, and became the village’s director of community affairs.

She obtained a doctorate in political science from Northern Illinois University and was elected in 2002 to the Illinois House of Representatives. She was re-elected in 2004 and 2006.

She resigned in 2007 to take the job of chief of staff to state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer in 2010 and became chief administrative officer for Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle in 2011.

Although gun control was the dominant issue in the 2nd Congressional District race, Kelly knows the region has other needs.

“We have to create jobs and help small businesses,” she said. “We need safe neighborhoods and good schools.

“And I believe we need to develop a third airport in the south suburbs and develop a regional governing authority to do that.”

Because the 2nd District, which runs from Chicago’s South Side to Kankakee, votes overwhelmingly Democratic, Kelly’s primary victory makes her the likely winner in the April 9 special election.

The political careers of her two predecessors, Jackson and Mel Reynolds, ended with convictions for criminal conduct.

“I understand the concerns of voters because I heard them over and over again from people during the campaign,” Kelly said. “You can’t convince people you’re honest, even if you have people who know you and will testify that you are.

“You have to show them. You can’t just talk about it. And I’ve told people that I will not forget my promise to represent them honorably.”

And she will fight to ban assault weapons, limit the size of ammunition clips and place restrictions on selling guns at private shows.

“Too many of our children are dying,” Kelly said. “We owe it to them to make their communities safe.”



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