Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association: History of the County Chairs’ Brunch


“Illinois Democrats have done more in the last five years to push back the wave of authoritarian, anti-democratic MAGA Republican nonsense than in any other place in the county,” Governor J.B. Pritzker touted at the 2023 IDCCA County Chairs’ Brunch.

The annual brunch is one of the largest gatherings of Illinois Democrats, taking place the day before Governor’s Day celebrations at the Illinois State Fair. Full of festivities, friendly faces, and a delicious breakfast, attendees listened to speeches from a star-studded lineup of elected officials.

Leading the charge was Governor J.B. Pritzker, who rallied against the disastrous policies of former President Trump and his affiliated candidates. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin listed off the numerous criminal indictments made against the former President. He argued that “the charges against Donald Trump are the most serious charges ever made against an elected official.” Pritzker argued that this rejection of Trump, along with the state’s actions to bolster labor unions, protect abortion rights, and implement gun control, makes Illinois a glimmer of hope in a sea of neighboring red states. “We are a beacon for national success,” said the Governor. “We are Barbie when everyone else is just Ken.”

Other notable speakers included Illinois Senate President Don Harmon and House Speaker Chris Welch. They took the stage together listing off numerous policy wins, from increased education funding to energy reforms promoting carbon-free energy to a balanced state budget.

In addition to the local elected officials, Illinois Democrats welcomed keynote speaker Senator Catherine Cortez-Mastro from the state of Nevada. A rising star in the Democratic Party, her narrow re-election victory in 2022 was crucial in helping the Democrats retain their majority in the U.S. Senate. The Senator came to Springfield with a message of fighting for the underdogs, calling on Democrats to limit the power of big corporations, promote organized labor, and most importantly, fight to protect the abortion rights of women across the nation.


Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the annual County Chairs’ Brunch, the IDCCA implemented several changes in 2022. After more than 3 decades, the Brunch was moved to the Bank of Springfield Center from the Crowne Plaza Springfield. Attendees enjoyed the spacious setting and a slightly more relaxed atmosphere as they listened to speeches from our statewide elected Democrats.

Leading the statewide ticket and reinforcing our rallying cry that “Democrats were ready for the fight” was Governor JB Pritzker. Illinois Democrats were energized to hear from our full statewide ticket including Attorney General Kwame Raoul, Secretary of State nominee and former State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Comptroller Susana Mendoza, and State Treasurer Mike Frerichs.

Illinois Democrats welcomed Congressman Joe Neguse of Colorado as the keynote speaker. Congressman Neguse is widely regarded as one of brightest young stars in the Democratic Party. Congressman Neguse brought a message of compassion and empathy, and reminded the audience that Democrats had to fight to save our democracy and push back on the “Big Lie” that former President Donald Trump continues to push.  Congressman Neguse shared some insights into his important role as a House of Representatives Impeachment Manager in the first Impeachment Trial of President Trump.

A highlight of the program was honoring Kane County Democratic Party Chair Mark Guethle, Cook County Commissioner Josina Morita, and Ullico Inc. CEO Ed Smith with the Party Builder Award. These individuals joined former House Majority Leader Greg Harris, former State Senator Toi Hutchinson, and former State Senator Heather Steans as the Class of 2022 Party Builder Award.


Even as attendees donned masks and headed outdoors for the 2021 County Chairs’ Brunch, the excitement was palpable: after a year away, the Brunch was back in person! This year, Illinois Democrats gathered in Springfield to hear the remarks of Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia, the keynote speaker. Other speakers included Senator Dick Durbin and the Democratic candidates for Secretary of State, including Chicago Alderperson Pat Dowell, former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Chicago Alderperson David Moore, and Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia. The IDCCA was honored to present two Party Builder Awards at the Brunch: one to the late Barb Brown, former chair of the Randolph County Democrats and former Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and the other to John Penn, former chair of the McLean County Democrats and Midwest Vice President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.


Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 County Chairs’ Brunch took on a new format than previous iterations — but nothing could stop it from its now-familiar status as Illinois’ premier Democratic gathering! Rebranded as the “Brunch @ 6” and held entirely virtually, Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Cory Booker of New Jersey teamed up to headline the event. Joe Biden, then the Democratic nominee for president, also made a virtual appearance at the Brunch @ 6. Overcoming the inherent limitations of a virtual event, Illinois Democrats once again proved to be a resilient bunch, making the gathering a success and offering a preview of the Democratic energy to come in November that would help Biden carry Illinois.


The Crowne Plaza was buzzing at the 2019 County Chairs’ Brunch, as Illinois Democrats assembled to hear remarks from the Brunch’s most prominent keynote speaker yet: Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. Freshly removed from guiding Democrats back into the House majority in 2018, Pelosi called on those in attendance to maintain the grassroots energy ahead of the 2020 election in order to retake the White House. In addition to her remarks, Pelosi became the highest-ranking official to receive the IDCCA Party Builder Award. Other Party Builder honorees at the 2019 brunch included former Congressman Glenn Pochard and State Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth, the Assistant Majority Leader. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth addressed the crowd, as did a parade of other speakers including Congresswoman Cheri Bustos and Illinois’ newly-elected governor, J.B. Pritzker.


Although Vice President Joe Biden was originally scheduled to headline the 2018 County Chairs’ Brunch, a last-minute cancellation created an opening for one of the Democratic Party’s brightest young stars to speak instead: South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. As Illinois prepared for an important gubernatorial election, “Mayor Pete” reminded attendees that Democrats are not just the party of cities and coastal areas: we can, and do, influence politics in the heartland as well. His speech was one of many highlights at the 2018 Brunch; others included speeches by J.B. Pritzker and State Representative Juliana Stratton (then the Democratic nominees for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, respectively) and Barbara Flynn Currie’s acceptance of the IDCCA Party Builder Award.


After the disappointment of the 2016 election, it would have been easy for Democrats to hang our heads and host a somber brunch in 2017. But nothing could have been further from the truth — some 1,800 Democrats assembled in Springfield, and the energy matched that of previous years! Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota delivered a passionate keynote speech. Also at the 2017 Brunch, Secretary of State Jesse White received a standing ovation after his announcement that he would seek a sixth term, and Democrats’ slate of gubernatorial hopefuls — including State Senator Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy, and J.B. Pritzker — addressed the gathering. 2017 also marked the first year in which the IDCCA handed out its Party Builder Award, given to Illinois Democrats committed to growing the party at the grassroots level. Two recipients were honored at the 2017 Brunch: former State Representative Lauren Beth Gash, and Democratic State Central Committeeman Bill Houlihan.


    In 2016, Illinois Democrats assembled at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield to paint a contrast between their vision and that of Governor Bruce Rauner and then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Remarks that morning were headlined by Kathleen Merrigan, the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who served during President Obama’s first term. Senator Dick Durbin delivered remarks. He attacked Trump for his inflammatory rhetoric and Rauner for his failures in office. In keeping with tradition, their remarks that morning kicked off Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair.


The 2015 Brunch doubled as the largest gathering of Illinois Democrats since Bruce Rauner’s election to the governorship the previous November. And after the first few months of his administration, one thing was clear. In the words of Lou Lang, “the Democratic Party has never been as energized or as organized as it is right now.” True to Lang’s prediction, speaker after speaker stepped up to the podium to criticize Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda, especially its anti-union policies. Then-Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (several months into the campaign that would propel her to the United States Senate), Senate President John Cullerton, and Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs also spoke out for unions and against Rauner. The previous day, Illinois Senate Democrats — many of whom were in attendance at the 2015 Brunch — had backed up their rhetoric by voting to override Rauner’s veto of a popular bill that would require arbitration if the state and unions could not agree to a contract during the negotiation phase.


The 2014 County Chairs’ Brunch occurred in the heat of Illinois’ 2014 gubernatorial election, which pitted incumbent Governor Pat Quinn against businessman Bruce Rauner, his Republican challenger. Addressing the crowd of 1,400 attendees, Quinn cast his opponent as a wealthy, out-of-touch individual who would represent “a threat to [the] right to organize, the right to have a union.” First term Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (IL) delivered the keynote speech at the 2014 Brunch, which also featured Secretary of State Jesse White and Attorney General Lisa Madigan.


When Democrats descended upon the Crowne Plaza Hotel in 2013, in the wake of a successful 2012 cycle, optimism was as high as ever. Senator Tim Kaine(VA) served as the Brunch’s keynote speaker that year, and laid out his belief that “government is a force for good.” He also reminded those in attendance of the importance of Democratic unity as the Party looked toward a difficult 2014 cycle. Will County Auditor Duffy Blackburn put that message into practice when he announced he was suspending his campaign for Comptroller, making Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon the presumptive nominee for that office. Others delivering remarks included Governor Pat Quinn and State Senator Michael Frerichs, then a candidate for Illinois Treasurer.


As President Barack Obama set his sights on reelection, his midwest campaign tour brought him to Northern Illinois on the same day as the 2012 County Chairs’ Brunch. While the two events were not related, his presence in the state underscored the importance of the upcoming election. Back in Springfield, Illinois Democrats took advantage of the Brunch as an opportunity to reinforce his key campaign message: the strength of the economy. Governor Pat Quinn gave the most notable speech of the event, during which he praised Obama for making sure “the American auto industry is alive and well.” Quinn also thanked Obama for his advancements in healthcare and education. Senator Dick Durbin, Speaker Mike Madigan, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon, and others also spoke at the 2012 Brunch.


After the disheartening 2010 midterm elections, the 2011 Brunch provided Illinois Democrats with an opportunity to regroup. The keynote speaker, Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, spoke glowingly of Canada’s universal healthcare system that had reduced coverage costs — and compared it favorably to the recently-passed Affordable Care Act. Calling for President Obama’s reelection, Schweitzer fired up the crowd: “in 2012, you’d better put your boxing gloves on,” he advised, “because we’re going to have a fight on our hands.” Schweitzer’s speech about healthcare marked the culmination of an issues-focused Brunch: Governor Pat Quinn spoke about veterans’ issues, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon gave an overview of her work in education reform, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan called on policymakers to protect working Illinoisans. Also at the Brunch, Secretary of State Jesse White announced his intention to seek a fourth term in office.


Although the buildup to the 2010 Brunch was tumultuous — it kicked off less than 24 hours after the mistrial verdict in former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s corruption case — the event itself was as strong as ever. Over 1,500 Democrats gathered at the Crowne Plaza. Chief among them was Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, that year’s keynote speaker. Franken reprised his Saturday Night Live impression of the late Paul Simon, a former U.S. Senator from Illinois, to the delight of those in attendance — including Simon’s daughter, Lieutenant Gubernatorial Candidate Sheila Simon. Senator Dick Durbin, Speaker Mike Madigan, and Illinois Treasurer and U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias also delivered remarks at the longer-than-usual brunch. When the contingent headed to the state fair upon the event’s conclusion, they were joined by National Democratic Committee Chairman Tim Kaine to continue the festivities.


The 2009 Brunch marked the first such event during Pat Quinn’s governorship. Much of the buzz surrounding the event centered around Quinn’s speech as well as that of his primary challenger, Comptroller Dan Hynes. Hynes went first, arguing that Illinois needed “smart budget policies” and transparency out of their governor. Quinn emphasized his record and argued for a progressive tax. The main event of the 2009 Brunch, though, was the keynote speech delivered by Iowa Governor Chet Culver, then the second-youngest governor in the country. He painted Democrats as the party of ideas as opposed to Republicans as the “party of nope.” Continuing, he urged Democrats to “be proud that we are the party that stands for something…Let’s work hard. Let’s always stay together.”


With Illinois Senator Barack Obama cruising to victory in the presidential election, the mood at the 2008 Brunch was jovial. With over 1,500 in attendance, this was the most-attended brunch in years — and the speakers took full advantage. From Comptroller Dan Hynes to State Senator Dave Koehler to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the keynote speaker, the emphasis was placed on ensuring Obama’s election and bringing more Democrats into the Illinois Congressional delegation. No one did so more emphatically than Dick Durbin, Obama’s Illinois counterpart in the Senate, who used his speech to recount how he had urged Obama to run for president because of his unique ability to inspire voters.


One month before the 2007 Brunch, the IDCCA, then under the leadership of Rock Island Chair John Gianulis, endorsed Senator Barack Obama in his campaign for president. Though Obama was unable to attend the subsequent festivities, he was nevertheless at the center of the conversation, with Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias speaking on his behalf. Governor Rod Blagojevich, Comptroller Dan Hynes, and former Illinois Appellate Court Justice Neil Hartigan were also among featured speakers that year.


2006 was a “Blue Wave” election for Democrats in Illinois and across the country. Though voters would not make that official for nearly three months, it was clear by the 2006 Brunch that momentum was crescendoing. Accordingly, Democrats came to the Crowne Plaza hoping to unite around the Party’s slate of nominees. Most notably, that included Alexi Giannoulias, who was seeking to become the first Democrat to serve as Illinois Treasurer in twelve years. In addition to Giannoulias, speakers at the 2006 Brunch included Senator Barack Obama (an early Giannoulias supporter), Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.


As Democrats gathered for the 2002 Brunch, the Governor’s race was garnering significant attention, as the Party had the opportunity to take the governor’s mansion after some twenty-six years out of power. Congressman Rod Blagojevich, who by then had secured the Democratic nomination for the post, spoke to those in attendance, as did a collection of other politicians including Speaker Mike Madigan. The IDCCA had endorsed Blagojevich in October 2001, during the primary campaign.


    The 2001 Brunch served as a cattle call for Democrats seeking election to statewide office. With the primary still months away, a number of candidates addressed the party faithful at the Crowne Plaza. Senator Dick Durbin, preparing for his own reelection bid, criticized Republicans for their infighting before ceding the stage to state-level candidates: Lieutenant Governor candidates including Mike Kelleher and Knox County State’s Attorney Paul Mangieri, Treasurer candidates like State Senator Pat Welch and State Representative Tom Dart, and Attorney General candidate State Senator Lisa Madigan. Secretary of State Jesse White also delivered remarks at the event in advance of his reelection campaign.


    When the County Chairs assembled at the 1999 Brunch, then held at the Holiday Inn East, the 2000 presidential election was near the top of everyone’s mind. The chairs in attendance took advantage of the occasion to unanimously endorse Vice President Al Gore’s campaign for the presidency. In the words of IDCCA President John Gianulis, “By definition, party leaders must lead. That’s why we voted for this endorsement. We believe Vice President Al Gore is the best choice to lead our party in the 2000 election, and we are sending that message early to the Democratic voters of Illinois.” Gore did not appear at the Brunch; instead, he issued a statement thanking the IDCCA for its endorsement. Newly-elected Secretary of State Jesse White was among the speakers.


At the 1998 County Chairs’ Brunch, Democrats set their sights on recapturing statewide offices that had fallen into Republican hands. To do that, they assembled what Cook County Recorder Jesse White called “a ticket that was made in heaven.” That ticket included White, a candidate for Secretary of State, and was headlined by Congressman Glenn Poshard, a candidate for Governor and future IDCCA Party Builder Award honoree. Both spoke at the Brunch that year, as did Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, who used her speech to call for Democratic unity. “We are unified because we are all Americans who share a Democratic vision,” she declared, and urged her party to “focus this election where it ought to be, and that’s on the people’s business.”