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Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 04:38 am

DiCenso tries to unseat battle-scarred Libri

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Sangamon County circuit clerk Tony Libri
After two decades in elective office, it’s safe to call Tony Libri a survivor.

The Sangamon County circuit clerk has won more than a few and lost a couple, notably the 2003 race for Springfield mayor and, more recently, a battle to retain his post as chairman of the county Republican Party.

The setbacks are offset by strong showings at the polls to retain the circuit clerk’s office he won in 1996 after four years as county auditor. In 2008, Libri soundly beat Democrat Cecilia Tumulty, Springfield city clerk, who had money, name familiarity and Barack Obama’s coattails. The victory came even as talk of unseating Libri as Republican Party chairman began to swirl.

Libri, who did not seek reelection to his post as party chairman last spring under pressure from top Republicans, said that he doesn’t think voters care about an intra-party squabble in which detractors voiced concerns about getting GOP candidates elected.

“Quite frankly, it was inside baseball stuff,” Libri said.

Libri points out that some Republicans who didn’t want him as party chairman have supported him in his quest for reelection. Sangamon County board chairman Andy Van Meter, for example, has donated to Libri’s campaign despite supporting his removal as party chairman.

But Democratic challenger Kristin DiCenso, a state bureaucrat who works for the Illinois Department of Transportation, says that voters should ask themselves why someone forced out of a party post should be reelected.

“He’s either great or he’s not,” DiCenso said. “I just don’t understand this back and forth.”

Libri makes no apologies for his performance as circuit clerk. He says he has 10 fewer employees today than when he was first elected in 1996 and is more than keeping up with an increasing workload. Since taking office, he says that he’s cut $1.7 million in costs while generating $5 million in additional income. For example, he says, his office since hiring a collection agency in 2011 has collected more than $365,000 in traffic fines and fees previously deemed uncollectable.

Libri also boasts that he has put court records online. He says he expects to make other digital gains, such as allowing guilty pleas for minor traffic offenses and new case filings to be made electronically, when the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts gives approval.

“I’ve done a good job, I’ve been a good circuit clerk,” Libri says. “We are probably one of the most technologically advanced circuit courts in the state of Illinois. … I’m not running against anybody. I’m applying for the job. My opponent is running against me, apparently.”

To be sure, DiCenso has plenty of criticism for Libri, a former television weatherman.

“Everyone thinks of the cute little Tony Libri of yore,” DiCenso says. “The fact is, this guy is a 20-year politician at this point.”

DiCenso blasts Libri for accepting campaign contributions from employees and vendors who do business with his office. The latter criticism was leveled to little effect when Libri won reelection four years ago, and the incumbent, who has accepted at least $7,000 in contributions from a vendor that puts court data online, says he’s done nothing wrong. The amount of money given by employees totals less than $8 per worker, Libri says.

“There’s nothing illegal or inappropriate,” Libri said. “Those are the kinds of claims you make when you don’t have anything else to say.”

DiCenso began her career in state government when she was hired as a marketing manager for the Department of Natural Resources in 2003 and was promoted to director of the agency’s office of strategic service. As such, she could not run for the clerk’s post because of the federal Hatch Act, which restricts employees paid with federal funds from seeking elective office. That restriction disappeared in February, when DiCenso became an adviser to the chief operating officer in the state Department of Transportation.

DiCenso acknowledges hearing talk that the job transfer that took place after she expressed interest in the clerk’s job demonstrates that she is as much a political insider as her opponent.

“Of course I’ve heard that,” DiCenso says. “What kills me, the Republicans created that sort of system – for them to say, ‘Oh, they moved her,’ like I can just call Dick Durbin to get things done. … I lasted through four or five directors at DNR – that, in itself, speaks volumes. I’m no cream puff. I do what I say, and I say what I do.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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