The newly formed Champaign County Young Democrats may be about to flex their collective muscles in party politics.
The group, whose leadership includes county board candidate Scott Redenbaugh, current board member Josh Hartke and former board member Matt Gladney, sent questionnaires to Democrats in contested primary elections this spring, including four county board races, the local 103rd House District race and the 13th Congressional District contest.
Those questionnaires will help determine whether the executive board of the Young Democrats makes endorsements this weekend.
One likely loser: county board Chairman Alan Kurtz, who is being challenged in District 7 (south central Champaign) by former county board Chairman C. Pius Weibel.
"I don't see myself being endorsed by them. Let's put it this way: I would be surprised to be endorsed by the Young Democrats," said Kurtz, who was elected chairman in December 2012 with the votes of 10 Republicans, himself and two other Democrats over the Democratic caucus nominee, Michael Richards.
"I know what they're doing here. In my opinion, that's why this Young Democrat organization was founded. It's more of retribution than promoting Democratic ideals and principles," Kurtz said. "It's what happened a number of years ago in the Republican Party when they were at each others' throats. Now it's our turn, I guess."
For his part, Weibel said he doesn't know how the eight officers of the Young Democrats will vote on an endorsement in the District 7 race. An endorsement requires votes from two-thirds of the officers.
"If there's a plot, I'm not aware of it," he said.
But Hartke, who is the outreach director of the group, admitted that Kurtz is in trouble with the Young Democrats.
"From my read of their opinion, they're just unhappy with his leadership in general, not just the way he got to his leadership," said Hartke, citing Kurtz's failure to get the board behind a countywide food-service rating system. Only restaurants and food service outlets in Champaign-Urbana are in the new program.
"He couldn't pull votes from the caucus that voted for him for chairman. To me, that's an example of his lack of leadership," Hartke said. "The restaurant-inspection system, especially among young people who eat out a lot, that is on their radar."
Hartke said he will vote to endorse Weibel and added, "The votes haven't been cast, but from my conversations, nobody is happy with Al Kurtz."
Scott Redenbaugh, founder and president of the Young Democrats, said Kurtz's responses to the group's questionnaire — which Kurtz sent to The News-Gazette as well as the Young Democrats — did not help him.
"As strongly worded as it was, and the fact that he also sent it to you guys, I think that might have rubbed some people the wrong way and he might have lost some support," Redenbaugh said.
Still, it's unclear how much influence an endorsement from the new group would carry. Hartke said attendance at its social events has topped out at about 50 people.
"Whether we can magically affect a lot of voters is one thing. We've got a lot of hard workers on the team, a lot of organized people. The people who are involved with us know who to put their energy behind," he said. "You look at that district, there are a lot of young homeowners, young renters out there."
As for the other races, Hartke said there is probably no consensus on the House race between Urbana City Council member Carol Ammons and Champaign attorney Sam Rosenberg, and congressional candidates Ann Callis, George Gollin and David Green.
There's also a split opinion, he said, on the District 6 race between incumbent Pattsi Petrie and challenger Tony Fabri.
He thinks incumbent Lorraine Cowart will get the nod over Brent West in District 11.
"As far as I know, everyone is pretty much in favor of Lorraine because she's been a long, hard-serving Democrat who's been there in bad times and in good times. She's always been with the team on all of the important issues," he said.
But longtime board member Ralph Langenheim of Urbana could lose out in District 9 to Young Democrat member Shana Jo Harrison of Savoy.
"We're really happy with her and with what she's done. I know a lot of people are unhappy with Ralph and his vote on the leadership and a few other things," Hartke said.
For all the talk of unhappiness and division, however, Hartke said he hopes Democrats can unite once the primary election is over.
"I really hope that we can keep these primaries about the issues, about people's style of leadership and not get into personal stuff, and try to set an example to the entire community about what the Democratic Party offers as candidates as opposed to the Republicans," he said.
Harold town halls
Republican congressional candidate Erika Harold of Urbana, unable to get U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, to commit to debates, has announced a series of town-hall forums. The first was held last night in Litchfield.
Harold will also speak and take questions at town halls from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Monticello Community Building, on Jan. 21 at the Decatur Civic Center and on Jan. 27 at the Champaign Public Library. As many as 12 to 15 of the events may be scheduled.
"It is clear that Representative Davis has to this point denied the public opportunities to evaluate us side by side in debates or to engage him directly in open, public forums on the important issues that face our communities," Harold said.
Harold adviser Mark Shelden said the Davis campaign has thus far not responded to any requests for debates or joint appearances.
He said the town-hall meetings are not being held in lieu of debates before the March 18 primary election.
"We're still looking for debate opportunities," he said. "It's certainly along the same lines in terms of people being able to ask questions and hear her respond to things, but this is certainly no substitute for a debate."
Meanwhile, The National Journal calls Davis' 13th Congressional District race the 16th most likely in the nation to flip from one party to the other. It says that Harold's challenge of Davis is "not the obstacle here," but claims that "Democrats have gotten behind former Judge Ann Callis" in the three-way Democratic race, an assertion that isn't the slam-dunk the Journal implies.
Rauner a no-show
Businessman Bruce Rauner will be missing when the three other Republican candidates for governor meet in a televised debate Jan. 23 in Peoria.
Rauner won't be at the forum at WTVP-TV in Peoria, but State Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale have committed.
Rauner has told organizers that he has a conflict on the date. The Rauner campaign said Tuesday that the candidate has committed to five other debates or forums between Feb. 4 and March 13.
Door to door in the cold
Rosenberg, one of the Democratic candidates for the 103rd House District seat, tweeted last weekend that he was campaigning door to door in the snow and the 30-degree (and lower) temperatures. Turns out he wasn't alone; Ammons was out there, too.
I asked them if there's a risk to asking voters to open their doors in the cold weather.
"I had a good time," Rosenberg said. "I usually come with a letter explaining my positions and who I am. Frequently, people will be a little perplexed, and when they realize I'm not selling something, they'll either talk to me briefly and take the letter or they'll invite me in."
"We did go out Saturday afternoon, my sons and (husband) Aaron and I," Ammons said. "We didn't have any problems as far as response. A lot of people did not open the door, so we did (literature) drops. But I think the response was pretty positive."
There comes a point, though, when it's too cold to campaign.
Neither candidate ventured out in the arctic chill Monday or Tuesday.
"I guess it's when you don't feel safe," Rosenberg said.
"There are times when you feel a little momentum going and you feel good and you're hitting the doors. Then after a while you just say, 'OK, we've had enough fun for today.'"
"No, we did not go out in that," said Ammons. "But I did spend a lot of time on the phone. And that was successful because most people were home because of the weather.
"I think these last couple of days, people just don't want to let any of that cold air in. But I think we'll be back out this weekend," when the forecast calls for temperatures to be near 40 degrees.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.