CHAMPAIGN — Michael Richards, a member of the Champaign County Board since February 2007, was nominated by board Democrats Sunday to be the new county board chair.
Richards' appointment to the $29,274 a year position likely will become official when the new county board, elected last week, is sworn in on Dec. 3. Democrats will have a 12-10 advantage on the new board.
Richards' selection as the Democrats' nominee took eight ballots in a 2 1/2-hour meeting at the party's headquarters in downtown Champaign.
The 12 Democrats were deadlocked for seven ballots, mainly between Richards and Alan Kurtz, another Champaign Democrat. In earlier voting there were four candidates, including Ralph Langenheim of Urbana and Pattsi Petrie of Champaign. But Langenheim and Petrie both got no more than a vote each and eventually were eliminated. For two other ballots Richards and Kurtz were deadlocked at six votes each. It wasn't until the eighth ballot, when Petrie switched her vote from Kurtz to Richards, that the race was decided.
On the seventh ballot Kurtz had the votes of board members Chris Alix, Astrid Berkson, James Quisenberry, Langenheim, Petrie and himself. Richards had been supported by Lloyd Carter, Lorraine Cowart, Giraldo Rosales, new board members Joshua Hartke and Rachel Schwartz, and himself.
Rosales of Champaign was nominated to be the new board's vice chair.
Richards, 33, would be the youngest board chairman in recent memory. He is a political consultant, recently working for the campaigns of state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, and Democratic congressional candidate David Gill.
Before the voting Sunday Richards promoted himself as a policy expert.
"I think that I have the most policy and intergovernmental experience. That is largely what this job is, steering policy, being a policy analyst, working with the budget and working with other governmental agencies," he said. "I would not be running if I did not think I had the policy chops to do this."
He pledged Sunday to quit consulting and become a full-time board chair. The current chair, C. Pius Weibel, works at the Illinois State Geological Survey in addition to serving as a part-time board chair. Weibel did not run for reelection.
"I'm willing to take the pay cut and do this and basically walk away from political consulting because I think this is a full-time job," he said. "If I have extra time it's because I would not be finding enough things to do. If you're thinking it's absolutely untenable for me to be in Chicago or Rock Island or looking after some campaign in southern Illinois, you're absolutely right.
"If I do this. this will be what I do."
Richards said he didn't expect any changes to the board's agenda over the next two years.
"The county's pretty broke so there's not really any room for any big new agendas. The issues are keeping the budget balanced in a way so that we don't have to cut any further funding for services, making a decision on our criminal justice facilities and our criminal justice system, ensuring that the nursing home continues to be financially stable — and I think that's going to take most of our time," Richards said. "We are in a stable financial shape but we are not really in a position where we can go out looking for any new programs. (County Administrator) Deb Busey has done a great job keeping everything taped together but things have been very tight with this economy the past four years."
He promised to work with the 10 Republicans on the new board.
"In fact the first thing I'm going to do is go to their caucus meeting on Tuesday. We're at 12-to-10. Whomever they choose as their next caucus leader, they are going to have a large say in what goes on at the board. We are going to have to figure out what we can agree on and then do it.
"I'd love to sit down with Rodney Davis (who defeated Gill in the congressional election) and talk about federal funding. I'll be talking to (Sen. Dick) Durbin's office. I obviously will talk to our state legislators and most importantly, talk with our city council members in both parties, and sit down with the Republican caucus."