Jim Dey | Local Democratic rule: How solid and for how long?

Jim Dey | Local Democratic rule: How solid and for how long?

Last week at this time, state Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, was trying to pass legislation that would turn Champaign County into a one-county judicial circuit created to elect judge candidates running under the Democratic Party banner.

The bill passed in the Illinois House but now is pending in the Senate, where its merits will be studied before it is given further consideration.

While Ammons was pursuing her own partisan interests, another House Democrat, Rep. Jay Hoffman of Swansea, was doing the same thing but with more success. Hoffman was able to pass legislation that allows his fellow Democrats to take control of the Metro East Sanitary District and immediately dismiss the district's current executive director.

Under Hoffman's bill, the Democratic mayor of Granite City will replace one of the three Republican members on the board. That will reverse the GOP's current 3-2 majority, giving Democrats the one-vote majority and, presumably, control of whatever resources — probably jobs and perks — the sanitary district controls.

Hoffman defended his proposal on the grounds that Granite City — "the largest city in the district" — "does not have adequate representation" on the five-member board.

Ammons defended her "Democratic judges" bills on the grounds that the Champaign County judiciary needs more "diversity," meaning candidates elected from her party rather than the GOP.

Both measures were denounced by critics as "power plays" run for purely political reasons. Of course, they were.

These kind of things happen in partisan bodies like the Illinois General Assembly. Discussing Ammons' bill last week, Republican state Rep. Tim Butler said both parties sometimes use their majorities to extend their control of government through self-dealing rule changes.

The problem is that politicians play these kinds of games to benefit themselves and their friends — the best interests of the public have nothing to do with it.

But there is always politics behind the politics.

In this case, the question behind Ammons' effort to elect Democratic judges is whether Champaign County is as solidly Democratic as she obviously believes it is and will, in the future, elect only her fellow party members.

Relying on the 2018 election results, there is support for Ammons' opinion.

On the strength of heavy voter turnout, Democrats swept all the countywide offices on the ballot — county executive, auditor, treasurer and clerk — while maintaining their majority on the county board.

The only local races they lost were two six-county circuitwide contests for circuit judge.

That was an impressive win, one that has reduced Champaign County Republicans to deep despair.

But few things are permanent in politics.

While Champaign County was considered solidly Republican before the 2018 election, Democrats have been electing candidates to county office for nearly 50 years.

Dating back to Democrat James Burgess' election as state attorney in 1972 and Laurel Prussing's election as auditor in 1976, Democrats have won many county races.

Champaign County Democrats have, periodically, held the recorder's office (Naomi Jakobsson and Patricia Avery) as well as auditor (Gerrie Parr, Michael Frerichs and Tony Fabri). Then, of course, there is current longtime State's Attorney Julia Rietz.

So while the November 2018 Democratic triumph was striking, it was built on a solid foundation of steadily growing political competitiveness.

All that was needed to spark the 2018 beatdown was solid organization, Democratic outrage over President Trump and over-the-top spending by the multibillionaire Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker.

At least two of those factors (organization and Trump) will be present in 2020, meaning local Democrats stand to do well. At least two of those factors will be present in 2022 (organization and Pritzker money), again putting the Ds in the catbird's seat.

Local Republicans will have their hands full and have to fight for every vote, whether it's on campus or in north Champaign. It's not clear that they will, but they should. Not to do so would be, in effect, a pre-emptive surrender.

What neither party can afford to do is not put its best candidates forward.

The public benefits when Republicans and Democrats are both strong, work hard to recruit the best possible candidates and commit themselves to running government at a high level.

One-party dominance is an open invitation to waste, corruption and indolence at all levels of government.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
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