Here’s how Direct Elections will revive a lifeless Illinois GOP

By DOUG IBENDAHL • June 3, 2012


Another Illinois Republican State Convention is upon us. Illinois law requires both established parties to hold a convention every four years. This time there is an historic opportunity for regular Republicans to make their Illinois Party better.


Adoption of the resolution linked HERE will immediately return the Illinois Republican Party to Republican voters. This is a reform that’s long past due. Our lawmakers have failed to get the job done in Springfield via SB 35 (formerly SB 600). But the good news is regular Republicans voting as delegates can accomplish the same reform on their own in Tinley Park.


It’s time to set the record straight once and for all on direct elections. Here are just some of the major reasons why we need to restore real elections for the entire State Central Committee.


Our current system has been a massive failure. Illinois has been a Blue State ever since the Illinois Republican Party was taken away from Republican voters. The last time Illinois won for the Republican presidential nominee was 1988. George H.W. Bush not only won the state that year, he even carried several Chicago wards. Not coincidentally that was the last time we had a directly elected State Central Committee. Rank-and-file Republicans had their right to vote taken away by the bosses that same year. Illinois has gone for the Democratic presidential nominee every year since, typically by a large margin.


Our current system is an artificial creation jammed on Republicans with no real consent or notice. Real elections are the natural condition in our American system. The Illinois Republican Party had real elections for its State Central Committee for nearly a century. For much of that time, Illinois was known as a Republican state. The Democrats in Illinois still directly elect their State Central Committee. Now they run everything. It was a handful of GOP party bosses who forced our current system on us in the late 1980’s. They had to change Illinois law to make it possible. Few Republicans knew what was going on. But the bosses wanted to consolidate power in themselves. They certainly accomplished power consolidation – and a few individuals were able to get rich over the years making deals with the Democrats. With the Illinois Republican Party turned into a lapdog, there was no one around to voice any objection. Our current system has benefited a few – but it’s come at the expense of Republican voters and our entire Party. In fact no Republican Party in any other state utilizes a closed system for picking its top officials like we do currently.


The State Central Committee functions much like a corporation’s board of directors. Presumably no Republican with two brain cells would invest in a company where shareholders were not allowed to cast a direct vote for the members of the board of directors. And in fact every single corporation has a system of direct elections. Investors understand how crucial direct elections are for accountability. Incredibly we still have a few Illinois Republicans who display Obama-like ignorance when it comes to organizational governance and basic business principles.


Direct Elections restores proper alignment of incentives between party officials and stakeholders. Republicans who have worked in the private sector get this immediately. When you’re a stakeholder in an organization – in this case Republican voters are the stakeholders – you need a system of organizational governance where the officials who are supposed to be working for you have the proper motivation to do their jobs. You want your officials who work for you working on your behalf – and not for their personal accounts. Restoring real elections for the governing board does that. In contrast, the system we have now has completely destroyed the proper incentive structure. Party officials regularly abuse the party franchise to pursue their own personal political agendas – knowing that the State Central Committee will do nothing as it exists with no fear of Republican voters. And then of course there are lawmakers like Tom Cross and others who viciously oppose restoring direct elections because they don’t want a State Party calling them out when they regularly vote like Democrats in Springfield.


The current system has destroyed the grassroots. The Illinois Republican Party has no volunteers or activity to speak of. Our State GOP does not even post information about running for committeeman on its website. State Central Committeemen have been conditioned to only worry about the small number of Republican officials who do get to vote for the top party leadership. Some State Central Committeemen see an incentive to keep that pool of “voters” as small as possible. The Republican Precinct Project has been the only statewide effort dedicated to recruiting good Republican volunteers to run for committeeman. With a precinct committeeman vacancy rate that’s exceeded 50% for years, the State Central Committeemen should be helping with the recruitment effort. Direct elections restore the proper incentives. Party building should be the prime focus of any State Party. In other states that obvious point is taken for granted. Direct elections are the only way to get the Illinois Republican Party on track and up to speed.


Accountability is completely out the window with our current system. Our State Party was recently involved in a highly questionable (at best) contribution funneling scheme. No one on the State Central Committee says a peep. At least some of that money was used to support State Chairman Pat Brady’s meddling in multiple contested primaries earlier this year. I personally received a robocall with Pat Brady’s voice on behalf of one candidate in a three-way race for 42nd Ward Republican Committeeman in Chicago. (In my opinion Brady was backing the worst of the three Republican candidates by far. Good news – Brady’s candidate lost by 10 points.) The robocall said it was paid for by the Illinois Republican Party. This kind of intervention by the State Party and its top official in a contested primary is inappropriate – especially when donor money is used. In the primary race for Kane County Board Chairman, Pat Brady didn’t just endorse one Republican over another – he served as campaign chairman for the guy who went on to lose by 40 points. Again, no one on the State Central Committee says a peep. And these are hardly isolated incidents. This misuse of the State Party – which belongs to all Republicans – has been going on for years. An unaccountable State Central Committee makes it easy. Our current system has given us a club where the few club members are only concerned about each other – and not Republican voters.


The current system has made the Illinois Republican Party Platform a worthless piece of paper.  Just this past week, six Republican State Senators voted with the Democrats to massively expand gambling statewide. And the week before that, 24 Republicans in the House did the same thing. The expansion wouldn’t have come close to passing either chamber without Republican votes. The Illinois Republican Party Platform specifically opposes gambling expansion – but not a single member of the State Central Committee says a peep. Not only does no one say a peep – one of the Senators voting ‘yes’ this past week is a member of the State Central Committee. But it gets worse – that Senator is Dave Syverson and he’s also the Co-Chairman of the Platform and Resolutions Committee this year. When the Co-Chairman of the Platform and Resolutions Committee votes in direct violation of the Platform, that Platform isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. And this failure by the State Central Committee to defend its own Platform has not been limited to the gambling issue. It’s been a common occurrence where other Platform planks are concerned too. The State Central Committee has in the past thrown a little bone to conservatives, letting them pretty much write the State Platform. Our Illinois GOP currently has a pretty decent Platform. But it all becomes a joke when there is no enforcement mechanism and no one at the State Party who will stand up in its defense. The old guard cynically lets conservatives write the Platform because the old guard doesn’t care about it and they have no intention of respecting it anyway. By restoring direct elections we restore accountability and create an incentive for the State Central Committee to defend its Platform. Absent direct elections, it’s silly to force a Platform on party leaders who have no incentive and even less desire to listen to the rank-and-file.


Direct elections will give Precinct Committeemen a bigger role. In theory a candidate for State Central Committeeman could spend a lot of money on a campaign. It’s unclear why someone would do that for a volunteer position – but if someone does – great. That’s money being spent to build the party and to get Republican voters to the polls. But a better way to get on the State Central Committee would be through hard work. For the first time in 25 years, State Central Committeemen will have an incentive to help recruit precinct committeemen and to work with them directly. A smart candidate for the State Central Committee will recognize the need to work with all party officials and volunteers. Right now few Republicans even know who their State Central Committeeman is. That all changes once the members know they will face voters in a real election. Direct elections energize the Illinois GOP because it puts the Illinois GOP back in contact with its voters.


Direct elections reduce the influence of public officials like Congressmen. Currently we have many public officials on the State Central Committee. And even those who aren’t are all pretty much handpicked by the district’s Congressman or other public official. In fact right now we have at least two State Central Committee members who are actually on the federal staffs of Congressmen. Direct elections would at least open the door to a true outsider. A Republican not under the control of her or his congressman or other official would at least have a fighting chance to secure a spot on the State Central Committee. It’s nearly impossible now with a system that’s so easily rigged and controlled by a handful of bosses. It’s also important to note that if the State Central Committee really wanted to exclude public officials from its ranks – it could do that today on its own. No change in Illinois law would be needed. The State Central Committee could amend its bylaws today to that effect and that prohibition could easily be enforced. The Committee doesn’t do that because it’s our current system that’s a huge benefit for double-dipping public officials seeking to run the Illinois Republican Party.


Direct elections means Republicans do something about Chicago, instead of just complaining about it. A majority of our state’s Congressional Districts are located all or partially in Cook County which doesn’t even elect precinct committeemen – and that’s by law. In all of Cook County, only 80 Republicans have any vote at all for State Central Committee members under our current system. And keep in mind – those 80 Republicans (50 Ward Committeemen in Chicago and 30 Township Committeemen in the suburbs) are spread over about a dozen Congressional Districts. In some cases, a Republican can get on the State Central Committee with as few as three or four “votes” under our current system. This fact has created a host of destructive incentives as all kinds of games are played to secure those “votes” of the Ward and Township Committeemen. A lot of Republicans like to sit around complaining about the need for party building in Cook County. Well if you oppose restoring direct elections, you’re supporting the system that’s destroyed our Party in Cook and elsewhere. And by the way, the opportunity to vote for some other party official up the totem pole is not why anyone should be running for party office in the first place. But under the system we have today it happens all the time. To the extent many of our officials recruit at all, it’s only to secure a “vote” for themselves in another internal party election. If a State Party official is involved at all in recruiting a committeeman, it’s usually only to find someone who will show up at a county convention once every four years. They couldn’t care less whether their new recruit is actually serious about party building and doing the real work of a committeeman.


Our current system has made it easy for Democrats to infiltrate our Party. This is just one area where direct election opponents have turned the truth on its head. We have Democrats at the highest levels of our Party now – and it’s our current system that’s made it easy. There are other examples, but Skip Saviano is the most infamous one – and it’s not just because of his ultra-liberal voting record as a State Representative (he’s also one of the 19 members of the State Central Committee). Saviano may have an ‘R’ by his name but he regularly endorses and contributes money to Chicago Democrats. When you have a top official of your Republican Party openly campaigning for some of the worst Chicago Democrats as Saviano regularly does – you don’t have a Republican Party as any normal person in any other state would understand the term. Other State Central Committeemen have done the same. And again, no one on the State Central Committee says a peep. With only a handful of “voters” to worry about, State Central Committeemen don’t worry whether the party officials below are Republicans or Democrats. All they care about is the “vote.” So in Chicago for example where in some cases the votes of only three or four Ward Committeemen are needed to get on the State Central Committee, life-long Democrats are regularly backed for Ward Committeeman by the party apparatus. It becomes much more difficult for a Democrat to get on the State Central Committee with direct elections. Democrats can easily play games in a ward race. It’s nearly impossible to do it successfully on a congressional district-wide basis. And if we restored a Republican Party that would do its job – we would have a Party that could easily expose Democrat interlopers to the voting public. Instead what we have now are State Central Committeemen who actually protect the interlopers. They depend on those Democrat interlopers to stay on the State Central Committee.


Direct elections will open up our party to more minority participation. To my knowledge there has never been a black Republican County Chairman in Illinois. And while there has been at least one black Deputy State Central Committeeman in the past, to my knowledge there has never been a black State Central Committeeman – even in areas of Chicago that are predominantly black. Our current system has made it too easy for the old bosses to get their pals in anywhere. Real elections provide no guarantee the composition changes. But at least a black Republican – any Republican for that matter – would have a fighting chance that doesn’t currently exist.


Direct elections will mean more women in Party leadership. Passage of the direct election resolution means we’ll return to the system where we’ll elect a State Central Committeeman and a State Central Committeewoman from each Congressional District every four years. This is not a “quota system” any more than the Republican National Committee has a quota system utilizing essentially the identical method. It is our current system that truly makes light of gender. While there are a few women on the State Central Committee now – most of the members are white males. And under the system we have now, the State Central Committeeman picks a Deputy State Central Committeeman – and that Deputy must be of the opposite gender. So as a practical matter, in the big majority of cases, a woman is being hand-picked by one man to hold the mostly window-dressing post of Deputy. Restoring direct elections means that starting with the next election for the entire State Central Committee in 2014, there will be an equal number of men and women running the Illinois Republican Party. Women will be on an equal plane – and not simply relegated to having mostly the Deputy spots. With direct elections, the largely patronizing “Deputy” title goes away.


Direct elections will energize the Illinois Republican Party overnight. Once incumbent members realize they’ll have to face Republican voters in a real election on a date certain, many of the destructive games we witness today will stop. Our officials – or at least the smart ones – will have to get serious. Right now we’ve got officials who spend almost all of their time spreading lies, rigging conventions – and just basically not doing their jobs. Much time and energy is currently being wasted just trying to keep Republican voters voiceless and disenfranchised in their own Party. Real elections mean your representative at the State Party will finally have an incentive to listen to you and return your phone calls. Those that want to remain under the radar should be swept out with the real elections coming up in 2014.


Direct elections represent the only realistic way we’ll get a better State Party Chairman. Shareholders of a corporation directly elect a board of directors who then elect the chairman of the board. Similarly, Republican voters elect precinct committeemen (or in the case of Cook County, ward or township committeemen) who then elect a GOP County Chairman. The Illinois Republican Party is an entirely separate legal entity from any County Republican organization. Just like Republican voters directly elect the precinct committeemen who elect the Chairman of the County Party, Republicans should have the right to directly elect the State Central Committee members who elect the Chairman of the State Party. That’s the reasonable system – the one we had for many decades. The one we have now is a jury-rigged, artificially created mess. And if you want a State Party Chairman better than Pat Brady, or Andy McKenna before that, or Judy Baar Topinka before that – you have to have a voice in picking the State Central Committee members who in turn pick the Chairman.



Doug Ibendahl is a Chicago Attorney and a former General Counsel of the Illinois Republican Party.


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