CHAMPAIGN — Defeated Champaign County circuit clerk candidate Stephanie Holderfield said Monday that she is "very confident" that she has enough support from Republican precinct committeemen to be slated as the party's general election candidate.
Holderfield last week lost the GOP primary to former state Sen. Rick Winkel of Urbana, 8,133-7,888. But Winkel, who had withdrawn from the race in February, too late for his name to be removed from the ballot, has already said he will decline the nomination.
"After the many, many phone calls and the many precinct committeemen who have reached out to me unsolicited from the beginning, I feel very, very good in the commitments they have been giving me," she said at a Monday morning news conference at the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign.
Although she was accompanied by her lawyer, Mark Hewitt, Holderfield said she was not threatening a lawsuit.
"I would rather wait and see what the outcome is," she said of the precinct committeeman vote. "That's not a word I like. I'm not even thinking about that, really."
But a letter from Hewitt to County Clerk Gordy Hulten, dated March 22, specifically mentions the possibility of a lawsuit.
In it, Hewitt notes that the State Board of Elections had suggested in a circumstance similar to Winkel's — where a candidate for the Legislature had withdrawn his candidacy but too late for his name to be taken off the ballot — that votes for the candidate not be counted.
"We do not understand why Mr. Hulten did not do the same," Hewitt wrote to Hulten.
"We hope to get this resolved very soon because, if not, we will be forced to file a petition of state election contest before the end of the month with the circuit court," Hewitt wrote.
Holderfield, in an interview later Monday, downplayed the lawsuit threat.
"The last thing I want to do is go to court," she said. "Absolutely I do not want to go to court. I want to make sure that we have total harmony in our party. Is it an option available to me? Sure. You have to leave everything on the table early on and then work through all of the issues and make sure exactly what you're going to go in."
But she said she hoped the precinct committeemen would meet and vote on their circuit court candidate before mid-April. The incoming chairman of the Republican Party had said last week that the vote would be taken after county votes are certified and Winkel officially declines the nomination.
"Does our party have to follow that plan?" Holderfield said. "No, we can go sooner than that. There's a possibility that things can happen more quickly. Based on what other people have said to me they would rather make it sooner than later so I get going and start campaigning."
Under the existing plan votes would be certified April 10, Winkel would soon decline the nomination and precinct committeemen would have to meet within eight days to slate a replacement.
Meanwhile, Hulten, State's Attorney Julia Rietz and Steve Ziegler, the first assistant state's attorney, defended their decision to count Winkel's votes and not follow the recommendation of the State Board of Elections.
"The state board basically was recommending that we post a notice saying that Rick Winkel had withdrawn and those votes won't be counted, etc.," said Ziegler, who researched the issue for Rietz and Hulten. "But I don't find anything in the statute that authorizes the clerk to not count those votes. I'm not sure where they came up with that procedure."
The election board's recommendation, he said, was based on a 1948 court ruling. Since then, he said, there have been numerous state and federal election law changes including provisions for early voting.
"Imagine I had sent ballots to a soldier serving in Afghanistan or a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Africa on Feb. 3 and they vote for Winkel and the ballot comes back to me and he withdraws on Feb. 8?" said Hulten, a Republican. "What am I supposed to do with that vote? Am I supposed to remake the ballot or treat it differently than the people who voted on March 20? Our opinion is that doing that would create two separate classes of voters for the primary election.
"I am confident with where we are with this from a legal standpoint. And I am confident with where we are from a what-is-right standpoint. The right thing for me to do is to count the votes as the voters cast them, report what the results are and let the chips fall where they may. I think it's incredibly dangerous for people to ask me to use my judgment as to whether or not to count votes in a particular situation, or to not count votes."
Rietz, the state's attorney, agreed.
"Gordy can't just say, 'Oh, I'm going to ignore these thousands of votes because Rick Winkel said he's not running, and I'm going to declare Stephanie Holderfield the winner on my own,'" said Rietz, a Democrat. "I think the votes have to be certified as they are and then Winkel will have to formally withdraw again. And then the Republican Party can slate the candidate."
Holderfield admitted Monday that she should have campaigned harder before the primary.
"If I wouldn't have gotten sick, I think that really would have helped," she said. "I had that terrible flu virus that kept me off the streets and pounding the pavement. That held me back and the weather got so severely cold that I was afraid of getting something much more severe than what I had."
And she acknowledged that she didn't so as well in her hometown, Mahomet, as she had hoped. She won the five Mahomet precincts, 994-910, and won her home precinct by just one vote.
"I didn't hit every single door in Mahomet that I needed to hit. Lesson learned. Don't take your own neighborhood for granted," she said. "I just thought that being their representative on the county board, they would have recognized the fact that I wanted to be their circuit clerk. Never, ever, ever take that for granted."