Family fight over 'Beckett-crats' forces Dems to choose sides
Dec. 24 News-Gazette column
Angry Democrats have been plotting revenge for months now, but it wasn't until the last day of the filing period [–] Monday [–] that political war was formally declared in Champaign County Board District 9 in Urbana.
That's when former board member Robert Kirchner and Lisa Bell filed their petitions to challenge fellow Democrats Barbara Wysocki and Steve Beckett, the chairwoman and vice chairman of the county board, respectively.
Kirchner said he decided to run for the county board rather than circuit judge because it is "more important" to defeat Wysocki and Beckett. He also said he had been contemplating his board candidacy "since the day Beckett and Wysocki" were elected to their current positions in December 2004.
Bell, who described herself as a "strong, driven Democrat," said she could better represent the Democratic voters in District 9 than Beckett and Wysocki.
Aye, party loyalty, there's the rub. Last December, Wysocki, Beckett and fellow District 9 Democratic board member Brendan McGinty formed a cross-party alliance with the 12 Republicans to elect Wysocki to lead the 27-member body. In doing so, the three Democrats spurned other Democrats backing Patricia Avery for re-election as chairwoman.
The political turnabout prompted Avery to label the three "Beckett-crats," not Democrats, and Kirchner said the act of party disloyalty was "totally inappropriate."
"Those organizational issues have always been resolved by the majority party," he said.
Bell went further in describing the importance of party loyalty. She described herself as a knowledgeable, independent person who makes her own decisions, but that "doesn't mean I would go against the majority of my party." Although she described Beckett and Wysocki as "assets to the community," Bell initially declined even to describe them as fellow Democrats.
"I'm not going to comment on that right now," said Bell, although she did later acknowledge they are "registered" as Democrats.
Wysocki and Beckett have been anticipating a challenge. In October, they appeared at a meeting of the party's members to announce they will seek re-election and listened as fellow Democrats denounced their alliance with the GOP.
They also have drawn opposition and criticism from county Democratic Party Chairman Tony Fabri and Urbana Democratic Mayor Laurel Prussing.
Fabri was especially irritated because he lost the largely ceremonial post as the board's vice chairman in the leadership squabble. Prussing's opposition is more surprising, given her repeated battles with fellow Democrats. But her stance is at least partly issue-oriented because the cities are involved in a dispute with the county over the maintenance plan for busy roads on the fringes of Champaign-Urbana.
Nonetheless, Wysocki and Beckett say they acted as they did because of Avery's poor leadership skills and that their first allegiance is to the public.
"If you want someone on the county board whose loyalty to a political party is pre-eminent, then you won't vote for me," Beckett said. "If there was a power grab, it was to assure the citizens of Champaign County that they had good county board leadership."
Wysocki said "this is going to be a crossroads election" and that Democrats can either continue to move toward good government or go "back to the days of business as usual." She said Democrats pledged to do things differently when they took over the county board in the 2000 election but fell "into the same bad habits as the Republicans."
Not all party leaders are happy about the impending civil war. They note that Republicans lost their majority on the county board after some GOP board members decided to purge other Republicans they deemed disloyal.
"I think we should be aware of history. We are running a risk here," said Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who also is a party committeewoman.
County Auditor Michael Frerichs, who's running for the state Senate, also has expressed misgivings about efforts to purify the party through purges.
Kirchner, however, said the challenge he and Bell are mounting is not solely about party loyalty. He and Bell both criticized Beckett and Wysocki for opposing a $50,000 racial disparity study Kirchner proposed in an effort to improve the hiring of minorities and women. Kirchner also was critical of the recent approval of a deficit budget for the current fiscal year, overall county finances and high administrative costs.
"There are a number of issues that have suddenly dropped off the radar screen," he said.
Bell's employment status apparently will be a campaign issue. She is executive director of Central Illinois Dental Education and Services, an agency that provides low-cost dental services to poor children. However, Bell's agency receives $105,000 from the county board, raising the question of how someone dependent on county money for salary and support can run for a seat on the board that provides the funds.
Kirchner, a lawyer, said it's his opinion that there is no conflict of interest. But State's Attorney Rietz, who used to work with Beckett and described herself as a friend of Bell, said her office "may need to give an official opinion."
She said she is "hesitant to issue an official opinion that could influence the election, but that Bell "could cure any real or perceived conflict by leaving her position."
Meanwhile, Wysocki said Bell's employment status should bar her from voting on the county budget, and she noted that Avery also is barred from voting on the county's budget because her employer also receives county money.
"You've got to wonder why we go out recruiting candidates who can't vote for the budget," Wysocki said.
Obviously, there is no lack of conflict [–] either personal or political [–] among the Democratic candidates, and the discord should make for plenty of electoral fireworks in the March primary election. The fear Democrats have is that rather than leaving the party more ideologically pure, the explosive nature of this political challenge will imperil the party's hard-won majority on the county board.
<*p(0,9,0,9,0,0,g)>Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey<@>news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.