Tom Kacich: Former county board members back independent map
The campaign to amend Illinois' Constitution to create an independent system for drawing legislative district boundaries already has one side effect: reuniting three past members of the Champaign County Board who had reputations for independence and not necessarily toeing their party's line.
Barbara Wysocki, once the Democratic chair of the county board and now the chair of the League of Women Voters of Champaign County — which is supporting the Yes! for Independent Maps group — last week was joined by former board members Alan Nudo, a Champaign Republican, and Steve Beckett, an Urbana Democrat.
Wysocki was on the county board from 1998 to 2010, Beckett served from 2000 to 2010 and Nudo was a member from 2007 to 2012.
"Our involvement has been slow," Beckett said Tuesday of his joint commitment with Nudo. "We had breakfast maybe three or four months ago. Al had been in contact with the state campaign manager. We were like, 'Are we going to do it? Are we really going to do it?' Then after a while I remember feeling a little turned off by the way it was going.
"Last week (campaign manager Michael Kolenc) came to town. So I went to the meeting. When I saw, for example, that Sherri Steigmann (an Urbana Republican and wife of Appellate Court Justice Robert Steigmann) was there, I started thinking, 'Wow, this really is bipartisan. This really is the real deal.' I called Al while I'm at the meeting and I say, 'OK, how about it, Nudo?' And he said, 'If you're in, I'm in.' So we're both in."
They don't intend to lead the local campaign for the proposed constitutional amendment, which needs at least 300,000 statewide to get on the ballot next November.
"I'm just going to be a worker bee on this one," said Nudo. "I'm just going to walk the streets with the petitions."
And Beckett plans to open his law office at 508 S. Broadway Ave., U, from 10 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of every month so that supporters can pick up or drop off petitions, sign the sheets or get them notarized.
"That's something I can do," Beckett said. "I'd say we're kinda facilitators. We have contacts with people, and most of the people we have contact with believe in good government and they see this as a good-government measure. It is, in my view, completely nonpartisan."
That's how the petition drive has to be viewed, they said.
"If it becomes partisan one way or the other, if the Democrats say that we're for it or the Republican state committee says that we're for it, the other side will say, 'Well, we're not for it because they're doing it to gain some kind of political advantage.' That's the worst thing that can happen," said Beckett.
That's what happened three years ago when a similar statewide effort tanked after it was too openly embraced by Republicans, and Democrats backed away.
Kolenc said last week that both Democrats and Republicans have signed onto Yes! for Independent Maps. Supporters include Republicans such as former gubernatorial candidate Ron Gidwitz, former Lt. Gov. Corrine Wood, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Chamber of Commerce CEO Doug Whitley. Democrats on board include former gubernatorial candidate Edwin Eisendrath, former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson, Obama adviser David Axelrod and Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner.
"That's the only way to get this done because this is not about partisan politics. This is about making government that works for the state, making competitive districts where you can have a representative who is actually accountable to you rather than accountable to the leadership in Springfield, be they Republican or Democrat, or a partisan lobby or anyone," Kolenc said.
Even if the redistricting reform is added to the Constitution next year it wouldn't become effective until after the 2020 Census.
Beckett, however, thinks it could have a cleansing effect on all Illinois politics, state and local.
"The prevailing party has been able to draw the map. They create districts that have such an overwhelming advantage or disadvantage that people are not willing to invest the time or money to try to do something about it," he said.
That, he said, leads to either disinterest or disgust with the political system.
"It seems to me that 70 to 80 percent of elected positions are uncontested (last year in Champaign County, 15 of 27 races, from Congress down to judicial races, were uncontested) if you go from the top of the ballot down. We had a state's attorney (in Champaign County) run unopposed. That's incredible," Beckett said. "It shows that people are disgusted about government. What we're trying to do is get people invested back in government, and to say there is fairness."
When they were on the county board, Nudo and Beckett pushed for an independent redistricting commission to draw county board districts after the 2010 Census. It was approved but produced an unsatisfactory map, in their view.
"Somebody funded the (local) NAACP and they submitted a map that was more to the liking of the prevailing party," Nudo said. "It could have been the Republican Party. I'm not saying that the Republicans wouldn't have done it if we weren't the prevailing party. But the process was shortchanged right at the end."
Beckett said the experience left him disappointed.
"That's why I have such a sour taste for what happened in Champaign County," he said. "In the end, it became partisan, and in the end, it wasn't what we had viewed. That map that ended up being drawn wasn't what I had viewed would happen."
But he and Nudo say they are hopeful the statewide redistricting effort will have a happier ending.
"This will favor the people, not the parties. It's supposed to favor choice. My God, can you imagine an election where you had good candidates for every office? That's the ideal," he said.
"I don't know of anybody I've talked to who is not receptive to this," said Nudo. "Ultimately, there are only things that will get this state straightened out and that is term limits and fair, competitive districts. If you don't get that done, we're in it for the long haul to have a prevailing party that will use it for their advantage."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.