That political reality is not lost on Kelly, who said her first task is to restore district offices and concentrate on constituent services as she replaces disgraced former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in the South Side and south suburban 2nd Congressional District.
"Yes, we've seen some tough times and some setbacks. I know for some of you, your faith in your leaders is a little shaken," Kelly told supporters at a Matteson hotel. "I thank you for that and I promise I will work very hard not to let you down."
Kelly, who launched her campaign on a strong gun-control theme, was joined at her victory party by Nathaniel Pendleton and Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, the parents of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old band majorette killed by gunfire on the South Side little more than a week after performing in Washington during President Barack Obama's inauguration weekend festivities.
With 80 percent of precincts counted in the low-turnout contest, Kelly had 74 percent of the vote to about 19 percent for Republican Paul McKinley, an unemployed political activist and ex-convict. The rest of the vote went to a Green Party candidate and three independent candidates.
Kelly, 56, a former four-year state lawmaker from Matteson, had been expected to capture the seat ever since she won the Democratic special primary election Feb. 26 in the heavily Democratic district.
She previously served as chief of staff to former state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and made an unsuccessful bid in 2010 to succeed him. More recently, she served as chief administrative officer to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle until leaving to campaign for Congress.
When Kelly is sworn in as early as Thursday, it will be the first time the district has been represented since November, when 17-year veteran Jackson resigned weeks after winning re-election amid federal investigations and a diagnosis of bipolar depression.
Shortly before the special primary, Jackson pleaded guilty to illegally converting $750,000 in campaign contributions for personal use. His wife, Sandi, resigned her 7th Ward Chicago aldermanic seat and pleaded guilty to tax fraud.
"They feel like they haven't had a congressman," Kelly said of the voters' reaction to her predecessor. "Really, there will be a lot of focus on re-establishing the district office and constituent services and being visible and community outreach."
She said voters see her victory as a new beginning for the district. Despite her lack of seniority and serving in the minority party, Kelly said she will once again be providing a voice to the district's constituents on legislation through the committee process and on floor votes.
"I'm a new person. I'm a female. I'm only the second black female House member coming from Illinois. I'm a suburbanite. There are different nuances for me being in that seat," she said.
Kelly said she realizes that committee assignments on House panels important to the district, like transportation or infrastructure, are out of reach. But she said she has heard rumors that she could find a spot on committees dealing with agriculture and small business.
"My district is urban, suburban and rural. People naturally connect (agriculture) to the rural. But when you think about it, there's (the issues of) nutrition, food deserts, urban gardens and those kind of things," she said.
Kelly's bid for Congress was not without controversy. The Tribune learned that after her failed bid for treasurer, the office's state inspector general recommended she be reprimanded on allegations she violated timekeeping rules to get time off to campaign. Kelly denied any wrongdoing and left the treasurer's office, which was won by Republican Dan Rutherford.
In February, Kelly won the Democratic nomination with the assistance of $2.2 million in independent advertising paid for by a super political action committee funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that endorsed her while assailing gun-rights supporters she ran against.
Kelly said her agenda is more than just backing gun control and vowed to push efforts to bring economic development and jobs to the district, focusing on transportation projects such as a third airport near Peotone, revitalizing the Port of Chicago and extending the CTA Red Line to 135th Street.
"I feel like I represent the state of Illinois to a great degree," she said of the district's needs. "No matter where you live, you want safe neighborhoods and you want a job. So, no matter where you live, we all do have things in common. … I'll always be open, accessible and responsive."
Kelly won the multicandidate Democratic primary with more than 53 percent, doubling up on her nearest challenger, former one-term U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson of Crete. Unlike Kelly, Halvorson was a gun-rights supporter.
Prior to Jackson's 1995 election to Congress, the district had been represented by Mel Reynolds, who was forced to give up the seat after being convicted of sex-related charges, including having sex with an underage campaign worker.
Reynolds gained the seat in 1993 after his predecessor, Gus Savage, was condemned by the House Ethics Committee amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving a Peace Corps volunteer while he was on an official visit to Zaire.
McKinley, 54, won the special Republican primary by defeating Flossmoor multimedia company owner Eric Wallace by 23 votes.
Wallace called the nomination "an embarrassment" to the GOP because of McKinley's history as a convicted felon who served nearly 20 years in state prison for burglaries, armed robberies and aggravated battery, most of it in the 1980s and 1990s. McKinley did not hide his criminal past as he campaigned, billing himself as an "ex-offender running to save the next offender," but he frequently declined to discuss the crimes.
Kelly raised more than $780,000, including donations this month from union teachers and public employees. Entering the final weeks of the contest, she reported more than $121,000 left.
McKinley reported raising less than $13,000. He took the unusual step of paying at least $3,400 of that money to himself for campaign work. McKinley acknowledged he was unemployed. In addition, an independent super political action committee, the Teaparty.net Leadership Fund, spent $23,000 on behalf of McKinley, including phone calls, T-shirts, bumper stickers and online ads.