Illinois GOP ignored every tsunami warning

By DOUG IBENDAHL • November 15, 2006


Don’t let anyone tell you that “national trends” were to blame for the tsunami that wiped out the Illinois GOP last Tuesday. The fact is the leaders of the Illinois GOP brought losing upon themselves. 


Yes, it was a bad year for Republicans across the nation. But in no state did the Republican leadership do less to prepare for the coming tsunami than in Illinois.


And don’t forget, this year wasn’t just some outlier. The Illinois GOP also registered big losses in 2004, 2002 – and frankly the 2000 election was nothing to write home about either. George W. Bush lost Illinois by 12 points in 2000, and four years later his 11 point loss here demonstrated scarce improvement.


Meanwhile, except for last Tuesday’s setback, Republicans have been doing phenomenally well in most other parts of America. Other State GOP’s have been building professional organizations and growing healthy farm teams. President Bush’s relatively easy reelection win two years ago didn’t have the nail-biter aspect of 2000, because other states picked-up the slack, even as the Illinois GOP remained dysfunctional.


So if the GOP in other states lost some ground last Tuesday – it’s less of a concern. Most had previously gained a lot of territory, so a temporary give-back of a portion is far from devastating. 


But here in Illinois, the latest tidal wave hit an organization that hadn’t been repaired since the losses two years before. Not only was there no preparation, Republicans awoke to the fact that our old guard has actually been tearing out what was left of the levies.


We’re talking about political malpractice here on an unprecedented scale – even by the sleazy standards of Illinois.


How NOT to win elections


So we have all of the evidence from those previous General Elections of 2000, 2002, and 2004 showing that something’s not working for the Illinois GOP. But there’s more. 


Republican voters sent yet another strong signal in this year’s March Primary when the GOP turnout was down 20% from four years prior.


So with all of the tsunami warning sirens blaring – here is how our illustrious leadership responded. And for the sake of brevity, we’ll only list just some of the self-destructive behavior from the past 12 months. 


A Biased Primary.  The State GOP actively supports Judy Baar Topinka in the Republican Primary. State Chairman Andy McKenna tries to deny that the State Party is taking sides, but his claims are contradicted by Topinka’s own running mate and by McKenna’s own actions.


Ethics Cynically Ignored. McKenna adopts a “Code of Ethics” for the State Party organization, but then refuses to enforce it where National Committeeman Bob Kjellander is concerned – despite Kjellander’s disturbing and ongoing noncompliance. It was a year ago this month that 12 grassroots organizations publicly called upon McKenna to simply enforce his own organization’s Code of Ethics. And last December Ron Gidwitz, Jim Oberweis, and Steve Rauschenberger sat in a closed meeting with McKenna where they called upon him to do the same. Even after Kjellander was recently referenced as “Individual K” by federal prosecutors in another individual’s plea agreement – McKenna still refuses to act.


Still More Double Standards On Ethics. McKenna and the State Party pressured the candidates in the GOP Primary for Governor to abide by another new policy, a Code of Conduct. But McKenna only seeks its enforcement against Topinka’s challengers. Topinka and her accomplices are given a free ride to say or do anything. Even when a long time Topinka ally (and a leading homosexual activist from Chicago) calls Cardinal George a “bigot” due to the Catholic leader’s opposition to gay marriage, McKenna doesn’t say a peep.


Rigged Elections. Elections for the 19 State Central Committeemen are held at County Conventions across the state on April 19th. The State Party organization provides instructions for these elections to County GOP organizations which actually specify procedures inconsistent with Illinois law. Although prohibited by law, instructing County Chairmen to personally cast votes representing vacant precincts (those not represented by an actual precinct committeeman) allows several incumbents on the Central Committee to be easily “reelected”. The rigged nature of the rules also discourages other potential challengers from even placing their names into consideration. In one case, Dennis Wiggins who holds the titles of both Kane County GOP Chairman and State Central Committeeman was essentially able to “reelect” himself to the State Party post in April.


Re-Rigged Elections. Despite the desperate measures taken by the old guard to have the same faces “reelected” on April 19th, one of the oldest of the old guard actually lost his post in the 3rd Congressional District. Ironically, it was one of the few selections actually performed fair and square. The vacant precinct issue never came into play. No matter. On September 21st – as the November tsunami approached – McKenna stopped everything to re-rig that 3rd District “election” for State Central Committeeman. The good news was the original loser lost AGAIN. The bad news was that in the chaos created by McKenna, a person with essentially no history in Republican politics (even as a voter) – but with close ties to the corruption plagued town of Cicero – made it onto the State Central Committee.


Keeping the Party of George Ryan. One outgoing member of the State Party’s Central Committee just hand-picked his own successor. Kirk Dillard decided not to seek another term on the Central Committee in April, but he still retains his title as DuPage County GOP Chairman. It was assumed that Dillard was prepared to vote the vacant precincts within DuPage for his choice. All challengers were thereby deterred. With the field cleared, who was Dillard’s chosen successor? Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar succeeded Dillard and assumed the State Party post on April 19th, and two days later Claar is quoted in the Bolingbrook Sun commenting on the recent conviction of his friend George Ryan this way, in part: “I cannot believe George Ryan was convicted.  Most, if not all, of what I read was circumstantial at best. . . From what I have been reading about the jury it sounds like most of the jury pool is, in fact, guilty of what they are suggesting George Ryan is guilty of.”  Mr. Claar’s unhappiness with Ryan’s conviction on all 18 counts is probably understandable. Claar was one of the founding donors to Ryan’s defense fund in the amount of $5,000. Another interesting aside regarding Dillard’s pick, is that according to Illinois Issues, while Claar was in San Diego at the 1996 Republican National Convention, Claar’s home was raided by state police as part of a two-year investigation into tollway land deals. Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun-Times also reported about an investigation in 1999. We must note that Mr. Claar has never been charged with any wrongdoing. Still, when it comes to picking his replacement on the State Central Committee, we have to ask – what was Kirk Dillard thinking? Actually, a majority of the incumbent State Central Committeemen “reelected” in April to another four year term are holdovers from the George Ryan years. If voters still view the Illinois GOP as the Party of George Ryan – guess what – they’re right. 


The Grassroots Betrayed. There was one real grassroots project this year that actually had tens of thousands of Republicans excited and volunteering in the field. That project was the Protect Marriage referendum and its petition drive. Whether someone personally agrees or disagrees with the underlying issue, the fact is the project was supportive of a key National Republican Platform issue. President Bush and the Republican Congress were also working on a parallel track in Washington on the identical issue at the federal level. Even if a Republican leader personally disagrees with the issue, you don’t abandon Republican volunteers in the field who are supporting a quintessential Republican cause. But that’s exactly what McKenna’s State Party organization did. Not only did the State Party abandon the base, McKenna’s staff had the audacity to lie about the motive behind the betrayal. McKenna’s organization even refused to do anything as simple as posting a link to the project on the State Party’s website. This was an appalling betrayal of the Republican base and reflects an attitude that Republicans in other states could scarcely even imagine. No where else is there a State GOP so hostile to Republicans and their causes.


Party Official Helping Elect Democrats. One of the 19 members of the State Party’s Central Committee, Skip Saviano, not only refused to help an outstanding young lawyer running as a proud Republican for State Senator within Saviano’s district – he worked on behalf of the Democrat incumbent. Saviano is also a “Republican” State Representative and he ran a joint campaign with the liberal Democrat Senator Don Harmon. The two even share a district office. Recall that Saviano is also the official who refused to allow a vote on SB600 in the State House last year. SB600 would again allow every Republican to directly elect their representative on the Central Committee. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Chris Lauzen won unanimous passage for SB600 in the Senate. The bill comes over to the House and Saviano has it killed last year. Saviano refused to even let the bill go to the floor for a fair, up-or-down vote. Saviano then has himself “reelected” to the State Central Committee in April under the old system where he needs only a handful of “votes” from less than five Party hacks in Cook County. Saviano’s work against a good Republican in favor of a liberal Democrat also clearly constitutes a gross violation by this Party official of the State Party’s own Code of Ethics. Of course we hardly need any policy to tell us that Saviano’s behavior is unethical. 




Is there anyone out there who will still argue that McKenna, Kjellander and the entire State Central Committee shouldn’t resign immediately? If there is – that person should just now declare himself or herself an official part of the problem.


Even those members of the Central Committee (and their Deputies) who weren’t actively engaged in bad acts are equally guilty through their silence. Each and every one of them is complicit in the Illinois GOP’s demise. Their job was to stand-up for Republicans. Every single one of them has failed miserably.


If we still have leaders who can’t understand how the destructive behavior described above creates cynicism and distrust that trickles down to ever precinct and grassroots volunteer – such a clueless mentality is reason alone for those leaders to go.


If McKenna, Kjellander and the members of the Central Committee ever cared anything about our Party, they will immediately step-aside on their own. Surely they can understand that it’s now impossible to recover the trust they squandered long ago. Mismanagement on this scale is a career ender.


This old crew rolled the dice on Topinka’s campaign. Too many destructive acts were required to get someone who really belongs in the Democrat Party the GOP nomination. They bet everything – including their reputations – and now they have lost it all.


Republicans shouldn’t rest until McKenna, Kjellander and the entire failed team is gone.  Rebuilding is currently impossible with this dishonest, dysfunctional leadership.


We again encourage every Republican to go here, to find the e-mail addresses for the entire State Party leadership. Tell them to do the right thing. Tell them it’s time to go.


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


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