Party will meet April 16 to select new leadership
CHAMPAIGN — Habeeb Habeeb, the Champaign businessman and Lebanese immigrant who has headed the Champaign County Republican Party for two years, won't be seeking another term as party chairman this spring.
Habeeb, 57, said he wants "to let somebody else take the helm."
"I don't know if politics is supposed to be a lifetime thing anyway," said Habeeb, who is CEO and president of Benefit Planning Consultants in Champaign. "I would love to think that I put a good imprint on the party that will last for a while. I know that for the last few years we have been harmonious. It's not like we've been bickering all the time. So how about letting some other people step up to the plate and try to accomplish the same thing?"
Habeeb said he has encouraged Kyle Harrison, a former Champaign City Council member and local real estate agent, to seek the chairmanship. Harrison could not be reached for comment.
The local Republican Party, as well as county political parties throughout Illinois, will meet April 16 to select their new leaders. The head of Champaign County's Democratic Party, Al Klein of Urbana, said he is running for another term.
"I really want somebody who is not divisive, somebody who will treat this like many Americans want politics to be," Habeeb said. "Kyle has worked hard with us. He has stepped up. I encouraged him to seek it."
During his time as party chairman, Habeeb faced potentially divisive issues over choosing a successor for former U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson of Urbana, and a number of primary election races last year.
"I remember other party chairmen coming up to me at meetings and saying, 'I can't believe what you have been through in just a few months. Some of us have been around for 10 years and never had to deal with things like this,'" Habeeb said.
With the primaries last year "we could have been a very divided party," he said.
"I think our party right now is a different party for the better, in an inclusive way, in a calm and gentle way," he said. "And yet look what we did with the elections."
Republicans won every countywide position in the 2012 election, except for Democratic State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who was unopposed. Democrats, however, retained control of the county board.
County Clerk Gordy Hulten noted "that it wasn't that long ago that people were talking about how divided the Republican Party was and how difficult it was for us to be able to win elections. Habeeb played a major role in moving the party beyond that.
"I can say personally from my own perspective that I feel fortunate to have been a candidate in 2012 when he was the chairman, at a time when he was working to unify the Republican Party and devoting an unprecedented level of resources from the county party to county candidates."
Hulten added that he also thinks Harrison would be a good successor to Habeeb.
In addition to moving party resources to candidates, Habeeb has given more than $15,000 to GOP candidates or groups in Illinois since becoming chairman. He also oversaw the opening of a permanent party headquarters in south Champaign.
Habeeb also noted that the number of Republican precinct committeemen has increased in recent years. In the March primary there are 68 Republicans running for precinct committeeman versus just 30 Democrats.
"You have to have an establishment that reflects well on people. They don't join you if the party's going to embarrass them. I think we've shown that we're going to be the party that is upstanding," he said.
Habeeb said he intends to remain a precinct committeeman, to work for the party and stay active in the community.
And he didn't rule out becoming a candidate someday.
"I would not say no but I'm not seeking anything now," he said. "But I never thought I'd be chairman. I remember vividly when Jason (Barickman) was chairman and he was about to be appointed to the Legislature and he said, 'If anyone is interested step up.' He said it at three or four meetings in a row at the central committee when he was in the process of being nominated. He said, 'I can't do these two things (legislator and county chairman). It's just not right.'
"So I'm going, OK who is going to step up? After the third or fourth time I stepped up. It wasn't reluctantly, but it wasn't something I was pursuing."
He said the time he devoted to party work ranged "anywhere from a couple of hours to 20 or 30 hours a week."
But during the process where party leaders in the 13th Congressional District were scrambling to find a candidate to replace Johnson on the ballot — eventually choosing Rodney Davis over Erika Harold of Urbana — "that took 40 or 50 hours a week. When that happened Jason (Barickman) said to me that my phone would start ringing the first thing in the morning and it won't stop ringing until 10 p.m. He was absolutely right."
Habeeb said it was "a good time to leave, instead of abandoning the party in a tough time. That's part of this. We're calm. We're successful. There are a lot of people volunteering and being engaged. I'm happy to pass on the mantle, or whatever it is, during a calm time."