By DOUG IBENDAHL • June 19, 2008
McKenna’s real motivation
It’s actually very simple and hardly a secret, based on what sources in DuPage report. Like most Republicans who have eyes and a brain, Bob Schillerstrom knows Andy McKenna is doing a lousy job as State Party Chairman. The Illinois GOP is headed straight for another embarrassing disaster in November and McKenna doesn’t seem to care.
Anyone can see McKenna quit on the job long ago. The obvious question remains, why did Andy take a top post in our party when he clearly isn’t taking it seriously, and when he doesn’t even seem to enjoy the experience?
At least part of the answer comes from a not entirely uncommon source – staff. When Judy Baar Topinka stepped down finally as State Chairman to run for Governor in early 2005, McKenna was put in by the Bob Kjellander crowd to aid Topinka’s bid. They didn’t necessarily need a leader, but they wanted at least a body to hold the place and to keep the State Party apparatus from becoming a tool for someone else.
Topinka’s crew arrogantly figured that her name I.D. could carry her to victory against the horribly damaged Blagojevich. Further, a professionally functioning State Republican Party might only give a lift to the Republican base. And those pesky voters who actually care about issues, if energized, might get a crazy idea like nominating someone other than another flawed Democrat in the GOP primary.
McKenna had already allowed his name to be floated repeatedly as a possible primary challenger for U.S. Senate when the old guard was trying to send Peter Fitzgerald the message that he better not run for re-election in 2004. McKenna had proven he would go along with most anything, so he was the perfect placeholder. Plus his daddy’s got money and connections.
But in November 2006, a large majority of voters decided they liked Topinka even less than they liked Blagojevich. After that trainwreck, McKenna should have done the right thing and moved on too.
But our State Party largely became the refugee camp for the defeated Topinka team. So now what we have is a State Party that’s still run by Topinka people. And the operation is as vicious, inept and as self-serving as ever.
Unfortunately, the one thing that old crowd is good at is self-perpetuation. If McKenna goes, so too do the old staff and various other hangers-on. So anyone who threatens the gravy train is going to be attacked – Republican prospects in November be damned.
This also explains the dissimilar treatment of say Birkett compared with Schillerstrom in Decatur. In 2006 Birkett sold-out to the Log Cabin wing by teaming up with Topinka for her campaign. So McKenna’s staff loves him now. Joe can do no wrong.
So when staffers give McKenna his words to say, Birkett gets praise while Schillerstrom gets attacked – even though they both lobbied equally hard for the same tax increase.
In other words, the whole tax increase issue was just a phony Trojan Horse in Decatur. McKenna and his staff don’t care about any tax increase – or really any policy issue for that matter. We’re talking simple self-perpetuation here. The tax issue was just a vehicle to attack a guy they perceive as a threat to staying on a political payroll.
Schillerstrom needs to step up now
I want to be clear. I’m not trying to make Schillerstrom out to be some kind of sympathetic victim or as some kind of hero here. Frankly, I don’t see a lot of white hats among any of the incumbents in DuPage, just like I don’t at the State Party level right now. I see a lot of good people and up-and-comers in the ranks, but few at the top. In some ways the DuPage GOP reflects the same arrogance and poor decision making Republicans see at the State Party level these days.
So Schillerstrom’s issues with McKenna may not be identical to the concerns I and most others have regarding McKenna. I see in McKenna a failed figurehead who can’t lead and who isn’t getting the job done. The divisive, rigged affair McKenna presided over in Decatur was just the latest example.
John McCain and every other GOP candidate in Illinois has to suffer again this year simply because McKenna and his staff are determined to put their own selfish interests ahead of our Party.
It’s a travesty that our GOP in Illinois is in the same position today that it was going into the awful elections of 2002, 2004, and 2006. Most signs look worse today in fact, and Barack Obama has very little to do with it.
But at least more Republicans start to understand why this old circle so desperately and nastily oppose giving Republicans back a direct vote for the State Central Committeemen. A State Central that was truly accountable to Republicans would be much more likely to do their job and dump an ineffective Chairman like McKenna.
Hopefully, Schillerstrom sees the obvious too, but I just don’t know for certain. I was a bit disappointed to see his recent letter to convention attendees where he tried to respond to McKenna’s attack. Trying to hide behind “the 11th Commandment” is the wrong strategy and in this case it’s a complete misapplication of that teaching. If Ronald Reagan was here he would be kicking butts and taking names. Reagan knew you can’t win or even advance the GOP flag with a broken organization and you certainly can’t ask real Republicans to unify with rotten behavior and unworthy leaders.
I think I’ve only spoken with Schillerstrom once. A couple of years ago or so, my friend and all-around outstanding Republican Dave Diersen was getting some really vile emails from an anonymous source. We helped him trace the IP address of the sender to the offices of DuPage County government. In what certainly wasn’t a coincidence, one of Topinka’s former staffers had recently gone to work there. That kind of thug behavior was of course the stock in trade for Topinka’s minions, a tradition that continues to this day.
Anyway, I called Schillerstrom and told him about the problem. It stopped immediately. So from my very limited experience with Schillerstrom, I at least saw some concern for professionalism. That’s a trait that’s as lacking right now in our State Party as it was under Topinka. Again, it’s no surprise given that McKenna kept largely the same handlers around.
Schillerstrom shouldn’t get a pass for working with the Democrats on legislation that is destructive to the Republican brand – just like our other GOP officials certainly shouldn’t get a pass.
But if the man is in the Log Cabin wing’s crosshairs right now, he must be doing at least some things right.
Doug Ibendahl is a Chicago Attorney and a former General Counsel of the Illinois Republican Party.