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As the March 17 primary approaches, Champaign County Democrats are in the middle of brutal political fight that has the potential to spark a dramatic change in direction for the county board.

Party insurgents, led by the Young Democrats, are backing a slate of four progressive candidates in a challenge to four Democratic incumbents who include board Chairman Giraldo Rosales.

It’s not a new fight. County board Democrats have been divided into two camps for years, their disagreements reflected by the practice of party regulars forming coalitions with Republicans to elect a series of Democratic board chairmen opposed by their more left-leaning colleagues.

Rosales is the most recent chairman elected by a coalition of board Democrats and Republicans, a move that enraged the party’s progressive wing. Previous Democrats elected in a similar manner were Barbara Wysocki, Al Kurtz and Pattsi Petrie.

Indeed, to show their disdain for what’s occurred in the past, some backers of the challengers wear T-shirts that state, “Barb & Al & Pattsi & Giraldo.”

Of those four, only Rosales remains on the 11-district, 22-member board. It has 13 Democratic and nine Republican members.

Petrie ran for re-election in 2018 from Champaign’s District 6,but young Democrats backing Mike Ingram defeated her in the party primary.

Rosales, a former Champaign City Council member long active in local government, decried the intra-party battle.

“We are one party, but we are so divided,” he said, characterizing the schism as akin to a “civil war.”

Champaign lawyer Matthew Duco, former president of the Young Democrats and a past candidate for county recorder of deeds, rejected that description.

“I’d characterize it as democracy in action,” he said.

But Duco acknowledged the Young Democrats’ slate of challengers is motivated by the desire to eliminate their less liberal colleagues and take full control of the board. Among their grievances against Rosales is his failure to follow appointment recommendations made by the Democratic caucus on the board.

Duco specifically identified Rosales’ decisions to fill two board vacancies with appointees not recommended by the party’s precinct committeemen.

Rosales is being challenged for renomination in District 8, located in central Champaign and Urbana, by University of Illinois graduate student Emily Rodriguez.

The other challenges are in Districts 6, 9 and 10.

In District 6, incumbent Charles Young is competing against DeShawn Williams.

In District 9, which covers parts of south Champaign, Urbana and Savoy, appointed incumbent Cynthia Fears’ opponent is Jennifer Straub.

In southeast Urbana’s District 10, appointed incumbent Connie Dillard-Myers faces Mary King.

As the battle for control continues, elected Democrats are watching with circumspect interest.

“I’m not picking sides at this point,” said Democratic County Executive Darlene Kloeppel.

But she said if the challengers take control, it was mark a “sea change” in the board’s direction that will make it difficult for board Democrats and Republicans to work out solutions to problems.

“If you’re far left or right, and you don’t want to work with the other side, I think it’s hard to get anything accomplished,” Kloeppel said.

While there are personal conflicts among the competing candidates, they are mostly divided by their vision of what county government should do.

Rosales said county government has a limited jurisdiction and that it has no authority to address social-justice concerns raised by his critics.

Rosales said the board funds county government, including the criminal justice system, maintains facilities, roads and bridges, and handles zoning questions. Social concerns are left to separate entities like the mental health board, the housing authority and the regional planning commission.

“The county board does-n’t do poverty, it doesn’t do housing, we don’t do programs,” he said.

But the challengers have grand ambitions for county government.

Rodriguez, Rosales’ opponent, advocates a variety of social-service programs that she says “all aim to fix the same problem — poverty.” They include affordable housing, expanded mental-health and drug-treatment services and shrinking “our incarceration system.”

Straub and King are running on identical platforms, their campaign literature emphasizing the same progressive policies, including “expanding community programs to reduce recidivism, not increasing bed space at the county jail.”

The jail-facilities issue has dogged the county for years. Even though current and previous sheriffs have called for new space that can be used to separate different categories of inmates, the board has been paralyzed in its decision-making.

Key to the progressives’ ambition is shifting the county to a home-rule government that would give it greater taxing authority.

Kloeppel said she, too, is interested in having the board pursue that issue. But it would take a favorable vote by county residents to become law.

It’s because the county does not have home-rule authority that would give it more flexibility in programming that Rosales said the challengers are misleading voters about what they can and will do if elected. He also said the political fight has “become a racial thing” because the four challenged incumbents are minorities.

The challengers include a black man, a Hispanic woman and two white women.

The challengers dismiss that argument, stating that adherence to a progressive agenda is what’s at issue.

“It would be nice if there was some sort of cooperation in (the party). It would be nice if the party was a little bit more cohesive,” said Will Schoell, current president of the Young Democrats.

The Young Democrats have attracted powerful backers, including state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign.

He’s trying to purge Rosales from the party by running against him for precinct committeeman. He also has donated money to the Young Democrats.

It’s impossible to say at this point how the races will turn out. But the Young Democrats and their supporters have shown themselves to be extremely well organized and hard working in past contests.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.