CHAMPAIGN - It's a Wednesday morning. There's not an election in sight. But a dozen senior citizens are sitting around a table at the Champaign County Republican quarters on Springfield Avenue stuffing envelopes, drinking coffee, eating doughnuts and speculating about Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's replacement and, of course, Bill Self.
It's another day in the life of the Champaign County Active Senior Republicans.
There are Young Republicans, College Republicans and Republicans in general, but this relatively new group attempts to harness the special talents of the senior demographic in new ways.
?People tell me we're a little bit unique,? founder Fred Welch said. ?People think when you retire, you sit in a rocking chair, but our people are busy, busy, busy. And they have talents and interests to contribute. Mainly, they're interested in good government. That's their motivation.?
Mary Alice Erickson, vice chair of the Illinois Republican Party and a Peoria resident, said Welch's group is the only Republican group organized specifically for seniors that she knows of.
McLean County is looking into duplicating the effort there.
?I keep telling Fred that we're going to clone him,? Erickson said. ?This group is highly motivated and has a great attitude. This is a great untapped resource across the state.?
Welch, 72, organized the group two years ago after a lifetime of relative noninvolvement in the political process. The genesis of his involvement was U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson's announcement at the site of the University of Illinois Morrow Plots that he was going to run for Congress.
Welch, being an agronomy professor, was impressed that Johnson chose that location. So, Welch attended the event and told a newspaper reporter just that at the time.
A couple of days later, Johnson tracked down Welch to thank him for his comments in the paper.
?I didn't realize at the time that he routinely calls a couple hundred people a day, but it solidified my feelings that he was an all right guy,? Welch said.
From that encounter, Welch's interest in the party grew, first to a visit to Washington, D.C., to a gathering of former colleagues and neighbors in his living room, now to an organization with countywide participation, statewide recognition and regular visits from the top politicians across the state.
Last year, speakers included three U.S. Senate candidates; a congressman; a governor; a lieutenant governor; a secretary of state; an attorney general; two Illinois Supreme Court candidates and a slew of judges, state senators and representative candidates, county officials and mayors.
Meetings are conducted the first Monday of each month and typically draw an audience of about 100 people.
Welch said they're trying to reach out to people who, like him, may not have been involved in politics before, and may not have been asked.
?There are people who want to do things but don't know what they want to do. We have people who'll stuff envelopes but don't want to walk neighborhoods. Almost universally, they don't want to make phone calls.
?Somehow, we keep drawing more people,? Welch said. ?Someone asked what we'll do if we get more people. I said we'll do what churches do, hold a worship service at 8 and another one at 10.?
Active Senior Republicans ask for no dues or fees. They pass a hat at meetings for postage and coffee. And they volunteer their time.
Welch said their impact may not seem too great, judging from local Democrats' recent success in local elections.
But he figures they've saved some Republicans some money and perhaps helped keep Democrats' victories to a minimum.
Last week, they were doing an 1,800-household mailing for County Clerk Mark Shelden's annual fund-raising event. They have done other envelope stuffings of 8,000 or more, besides other forms of work for candidates.
Champaign County Democratic Chair Gerrie Parr said she realizes the value of the seniors' work.
Democrats don't have a separate seniors group, but they have talked about starting a Young Democrats group for people ages 18 to 35.
?A few years ago, I was concerned that all our activists were gray haired, like me,? Parr said.
?The last couple of years, we've had an infusion of younger people.?
Whatever age the participants are, the secret is getting them to work, and getting them to vote, Parr and Welch said.
?I don't think we can take anyone for granted. The Democrats have just outworked us, I think,? Welch said. ?I moved to Urbana in 1964 and since then have witnessed the slow pecking away of Republicans until Democrats have taken over about everything over there.
?To paraphrase Edmund Burke ... the only thing necessary for Democrats to take over is for good Republicans to do nothing. Well, we're not going to do nothing,? he said.
Parr said she doesn't mind the competition.
Generally speaking, the leadership of each party is on pretty good terms with the other. Of course it's not an election year either.
Earlier this week, Champaign County Republican Chairman Steve Hartman called Parr to ask if the Democrats were going to have a tent at the Champaign County Fair this year, since it is a nonelection year.
Parr said she told him yes they would be, even though in the past, the parties have sometimes not had tents in nonelection years.
?He said, ?Well, OK then,' he'd go ahead and send in a check and put up a tent, too,? she said.
The Republicans shouldn't have a problem staffing it. All they have to do is call Fred Welch.
You can reach Phil Bloomer at 351-5371 or via e-mail at email@example.com.