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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 02:56 am

A way forward for local Democrats

Election night was a mixed bag for local Democrats as nearly a hundred activists, many who worked on local races, filled Floyd’s Thirst Parlor to await vote returns. The mood was festive and optimistic, but as the night advanced without a presidential winner declared, nervousness lingered. Sporadic cheers erupted as the projected winners of high-profile races across the country like Elizabeth Warren and Claire McCaskill were announced and key battleground states trended blue. When Ohio was finally called and the words “President Obama Re-Elected” flashed on the screen, the crowd exploded in celebration.

Throughout the night, the landscape also looked good for other key Illinois races closely watched by Democrats. Andy Manar’s race for state Senate was close but in the positive column, the six targeted congressional races appeared to be going blue and big Democratic gains seemed certain in the Illinois legislature.

But a clean sweep was not to be. Local Democrats took it on the chin, winning only one contested race (Tony DelGiorno for County Board District #22) among those for Sangamon County circuit clerk, county auditor, state’s attorney, county coroner, circuit judge and six county board seats.

Many political veterans here shrug off these lopsided Republican wins in countywide partisan races. After all, it’s a Republican town, they say. But before election night, local Democratic activists had felt good about their chances for picking up a few seats this round, for several reasons.

For one, the local Democratic Party ran a full slate of candidates for countywide offices – a rare occurrence. This forces the opposition to expend more time and resources and pries entrenched incumbents from their comfort zones. Local party Dems also believed they fielded quality candidates for countywide and county board seats who, for the most part, ran spirited, high-intensity campaigns. This energizes the base, brings in new volunteers and donors, magnifies the issues and philosophies important to Democrats and underscores deficiencies in opponents. Moreover, in the circuit clerk’s race, many observers thought Tony Libri’s reputation was tarnished after rebukes regarding his character and leadership abilities during a nasty public battle for leadership of the Republican Party.

Local Democrats were also poised to benefit from three high-profile races – the 13th U.S House of Representatives, the 48th Illinois Senate and the 96th Illinois House – all campaigns that pumped significant resources into get-out-the-vote efforts to a large swath of Sangamon County precincts. And finally, the possibility that local candidates might benefit from President Obama’s coattails led local Democrats toward optimism.

Sangamon County voters, however, thought otherwise. Kristin DiCenso, a candidate many thought could beat incumbent circuit clerk Tony Libri, fell short of victory despite scoring the highest voter percentage among the local Democrats at 47 percent. Democrat Tim Londrigan ran against incumbent Circuit Judge John Schmidt, and despite high name recognition among Democrats and Republicans, Londrigan received only 46 percent of the vote. Democratic candidates Jerry Curry (for coroner), Chris Boyster (for county auditor), and Ron Stradt (for state’s attorney) received unexpectedly low vote percentages at 40, 37 and 35 respectively.

High hopes for this year’s mostly young, enthusiastic Democratic county board candidates also fell well short of hopes and expectations. Six Democrats ran for contested seats and only one prevailed. Of those defeated, Marilyn Mancini came closest, losing by only 62 votes to Republican Catie Sheehan.

The one bright spot for local Dems was Tony DelGiorno, who beat Republican incumbent and county board leader Tim Moore. Interestingly, DelGiorno spent little time cozying up to local Democrats, so his win took many by surprise. This outcome is hard to read but it could lead some future Democratic candidates to distance themselves from local party affiliation. Former Democratic congressional candidate and current alderman Joe McMenamin essentially did this in the previous election cycle to win in Ward 7.

As a proud Democrat, I’m not advocating this route for local candidates, nor am I waving the flag of surrender. Yet, much like Illinois Republicans who are marginalized in a solidly Democratic state and are engaging in political soul-searching, Sangamon County Democrats may need to accept that they are simply outnumbered at the county level and begin exploring other means of asserting influence. The Sangamon County Republican Party has built a strong, patronage-based operation over decades and toppling it is difficult at best. Of course, they are not infallible and are vulnerable in many policy areas.

There are opportunities for real change in Sangamon County, but those may lie in the strategic use of Democrats’ minority standing, the targeting of local resources toward nonpartisan races and the continued building of grassroots activism. Working either through the local party or other avenues, individual Democrats must remain visible and engaged in the community, pay close attention to local governance and policy, hold incumbents accountable for their election-year promises and promote creative solutions to pressing local problems. Sangamon County Democrats need to employ new strategies to get the job done. There is more than one way to slay the beast and dejected Sangamon County Democrats need to employ new strategies to get the job done.

Sheila Stocks-Smith was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and assisted numerous Democratic candidates during the 2012 election cycle.
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