Jim Dey: 'Beckett-crats' then, 'Kurtz-crats' now

The air was filled with cries of betrayal and threats of political recrimination when a handful of Democrats joined minority Republicans to defeat majority Democrats' choice to lead the Champaign County Board.

"I feel a sense of betrayal," said Patricia Avery, who was the Democratic caucus choice for another term as the board's chairwoman.

That was in December 2004. Now fast forward to December 2012, and the air is again filled with similar angst after a handful of Democrats joined with minority Republicans to defeat the Democrats' choice for chairman of the county board.

"There are a lot of people in this room who feel betrayed by Al Kurtz, and when the voters find out, we're going to have a lot of Democratic voters, especially in District 7 (Kurtz's district) who are going to feel betrayed by Al Kurtz," said Michael Richards, the Champaign Democrat who was his party's choice for board chairman.

Champaign County voters have seen this movie before.

Majority Democrats hold a caucus meeting to choose their candidate for board chairman, but a handful of Democrats aren't happy. The renegade Democrats then form an alliance with Republicans and elect the Democrat they prefer to run the board. Political discord follows.

In 2004, it was Barbara Wysocki, an Urbana Democrat, who was elected chairwoman. In 2012, it is Kurtz, a Champaign Democrat, who was elected chairman.

The question going forward is to what extent the board will function given the split among board Democrats.

Board Democrat Ralph Langenheim, who voted for Kurtz, said he's heard some people claim the hard feelings will make it impossible to get anything done.

"I think that's poppycock," he said. "This will have its effect. But the board will get its business done."

Ironically, eight years ago, Langenheim was among those critical of Wysocki's decision to run for chairwoman with Republican support. Now, Langenheim said, joining with the GOP to elect Kurtz was the right thing to do.

"That meeting was not a happy affair. I was disturbed through (Thursday)," he said.

Since then, Langenheim said, "I've gotten a certain amount of feedback from the world at large" that has "considerably settled my feelings of unease."

If 2004 is any guide, the road ahead will be rough.

Back then, Steve Beckett, an Urbana Democrat who left the board in 2010, worked with Republicans to elect Wysocki.

Beckett, Wysocki, and Brendan McGinty, all District 9 Democrats from Urbana, joined with the board's 12 Republicans to defeat Avery on the old 27-member board. As a result, Avery labeled her party's apostates as "Beckett-crats," not Democrats, and political war ensued.

Beckett recalled that since he led the revolt, "I was the one who people ended up hating."

Anger that continues to this day also was directed at Wysocki. She recently ran for circuit clerk of Champaign County, losing narrowly to Republican Katie Blakeman. Langenheim speculated that many Democrats refused to vote for Wysocki this year because of lingering animosity over the 2004 contretemps.

Wysocki served one two-year term as chairwoman, losing her post when board Republicans decided not to continue their alliance with Democrats. Majority Democrats then settled on board member C. Pius Weibel, a Champaign Democrat, as chairman, and he held the post until deciding not to run for re-election this year.

That led to the battle between Kurtz and Richards.

At 72, Kurtz is a retired businessman who has a reputation as a hard worker who is willing to listen but can be abrasive. Richards, who is in his 30s, is a full-time Democratic political consultant who is perceived by many, especially Republicans, as a rabid partisan who views everything through a political lens.

When Republicans learned Richards was the Democratic caucus choice, they were dismayed to the point that board member Jon Schroeder, who is from Sadorus, sought out Kurtz to see if he would seek the post with Republican support. Kurtz said yes.

Ironically, Kurtz takes the chairman's post with far greater support among individual board members than Richards.

When Democrats met in caucus to select a chair nominee, it took them eight ballots before they settled on Richards. At one point or another, Kurtz had the support of Democrats Langenheim, Chris Alix, James Quisenberry, Astrid Berkson and Pattsi Petrie.

Richards won the caucus nod when Petrie switched her vote on the eighth ballot to join Lloyd Carter, Lorraine Cowart, Giraldo Rosales, Josh Hartke and Rachel Schwartz.

So at one time or another, Kurtz had the votes of 15 of the board's other 21 Democrats and Republicans. The largest number Richards attracted was eight of the other 21 members.

That lopsided total in Kurtz's favor prompted board member Giraldo Rosales, a Champaign Democrat who stuck with Richards all the way, to speculate that some Democrats who voted for Richards Monday night weren't really sorry to see him lose. He suggested they decided to vote for Richards to avoid any political recriminations directed by their fellow Democrats against Kurtz, Langenheim and Berkson.

Rosales said he supported Richards as a personal favor but otherwise "didn't have a dog in that fight." Slated to be the board's vice chairman under Richards, Rosales said he was irritated that Kurtz challenged his credentials but otherwise undisturbed not to get the post.

"The vice chairman really doesn't do that much," he said.

Rosales said he has no time for pursuing political retaliation, will resume his policy of not caucusing with Democrats on board issues, will happily work with board Republicans and will cast his votes strictly on the merits.

"I don't think (the Kurtz chairmanship) is going to affect me one way or the other," he said. "I'll just go back to what I was doing the last two years — voting my conscience and what my constituents would like."

But that attitude will not be common among activist Democrats. They're already plotting revenge, starting with possible primary challenges against Kurtz, Langenheim and Berkson if they seek re-election.

Six years ago, Democrats, led by former party chairman Tony Fabri, tried to purge Beckett and Wyskocki from the party by running two challengers — the late Robert Kirchner and Lisa Bell — against them in the 2006 Democratic primary. Beckett and Wysocki survived.

Beckett won outright. But there was a tie vote between Wysocki and Bell, with Wysocki winning her party's nod on a coin flip.

Kurtz is hoping to avoid that kind of acrimony. Working in the county board office Friday, he marveled at the numbers of things there are to do and said he hopes all board members remember their first duty is to the public, not to settle old scores.

"We have a lot of serious issues coming up that we have to work together on," he said. "There may be some people who can't put it behind them now. But I hope they can eventually."

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

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