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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 10:12 am

Libri's last stand?

As Election Day approaches, circuit clerk candidates Tony Libri and Cecilia Tumulty are dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.

Tony Libri with his wife, Ann, and daughter, Isabella.

In August 2005, former Republican Gov. George Ryan awaited trial on federal corruption charges, Democrats held almost every constitutional office in the state and a majority of seats in the legislature. Without the traditional goodies – namely, state jobs – to hand out in exchange for loyalty and hard work, nobody wanted to be chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Party. After some coaxing by Irv Smith, who was stepping down after two decades as county GOP boss, circuit clerk Tony Libri agreed to take the job.

It was hardly an act of martyrdom. Libri had been quietly expressing a desire to take the party's top spot for some time and upon assuming the chairman role talked about attracting young people and expanding the party. With Gov. Rod Blagojevich's unpopularity growing, particularly in central Illinois, the odds that Libri could achieve his goal were in his favor. Even after having narrowly lost a hard-fought mayoral contest against Tim Davlin two years before, Libri, a former Marine, TV weatherman, and furniture store spokesman, remained highly regarded among party members.

His popularity slowly began to fade, however. Libri notoriously butted heads with prominent fellow Republicans who made political donations to or otherwise supported Democratic candidates. Then in late 2007, under Libri's leadership, the Sangamon County partybacked the ill-fated presidentialcandidacy of former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani, who not only dropped out of the race but bailed on his scheduled keynoting of Springfield's annual Lincoln Day luncheon, which drew criticism of Libri from some local Republicans.

More embarrassment came later in 2008 when Libri, along with other politically connected people serving on the Springfield Metro Sanitary District board, gave themselves a raise while raising taxpayers' sewer rates.

Now facing reelection to the office of Sangamon County circuit clerk, in his first contested race since he secured the post in 1996, the 53-year-old Libri's political future hangs in the balance. Later this fall, Libri, a colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard will deploy to Afghanistan for a year and what will happen to the Sangamon County party in his absence is uncertain.

In Sangamon County, which has disagreed with the rest of the state's Democratic picks in the past two presidential and gubernatorial elections, for any Republican county officeholder to be vulnerable against any Democrat speaks volumes. Unfortunately for Libri, his opponent isn't just any Democrat.

Cecilia Tumulty has held elected offices since 1999, first as Ward 5 alderwoman then as Springfield city clerk. She's respected and well-liked, winning reelection in 2007 with 74 percent of voter support.

In fact, it's hard to dislike to either candidate. Combined, their charisma and intelligence could fill every file cabinet in the offices of the Sangamon County circuit clerk and the basement vault. Indeed, the responsibilities of the position are rather mundane: overseeing the office that collects your speeding tickets, child support payments, and fees when you apply for a marriage license, birth certificates, or passport. Also, the office processes and maintains records for the 7th Judicial Circuit.

Both can lay claim to having brought their respective offices into the 21st century by making information available via the Web. However, Tumulty, 44, may have a slight advantage as the county's change candidate: she would be just the second female officeholder in the county's history and, unlike her previous campaigns in officially nonpartisan races, her name appears on ballots with a D next to it the same year that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's name is on the ballot.

Tumulty also has the support of a resurgent county Democratic Party and the not-so-secret backing of some influential Republicans. She calls it the benefit of having held nonpartisan office. "I have a 10-year history of working in this community so I've gotten a lot of support from both sides of the aisle," she says.

Most notably, former members of the now-disbanded Evening Republican Club hosted a fundraiser for Tumulty in June. "They weren't members of our party. They just wanted you to think that," Libri says of the event organizers, Pete Cimarossa and Dr. Jack Fyans.

"That was just an attention-getting device. These are people who are mad at me and this is how they think they're getting back at me. You'll find since I'm chairman of the Republican Party, people who are no longer connected with our party would like to see bad things happen to the party — and to me. So they do things like this. This is their way of making themselves feel powerful," Libri adds.

City clerk Cecilia Tumulty is giving Libri a run for his money.

But in politics, money is power — and Tumulty is beating her opponent on that front too. According to recent state campaign disclosure records, Tumulty's war chest contained $25,512 as of Oct. 5, compared with Libri's $18,578.81.

In addition to that sum, Tumulty has bested Libri in raking in donations of $500, which candidates are required to report in weeks leading up to the election. Prairie PAC, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's leadership Political-action Committee, gave $5,000 while unions, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 193 and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 donated a combined $3,500. Springfield resident James Potter also contributed $1,000. As of press time, the state database lists no $500 donations to Libri's campaign committee.

But Libri has proven his shrewdness over the years. In 2007, for example, he correctly predicted that Republicans would wrest control of the nonpartisan Springfield City Council. Libri says his campaign has conducted polls in his race against Tumulty, but declines to disclose the results except to say, "One said the race is close, one had me way ahead. But I don't believe in polls."

His decision to go to Afghanistan has played well with voters despite the fact, he says, "I could probably swing it so that I wouldn't have to go, but that would mean that some other young person would have to go in my place. I'll probably retire shortly after coming back because I'm getting close to retirement age anyway."

By talking to people who know him, one gets the impression that Libri is like a wounded tiger, and as injured animals are prone to do when cornered, Libri has ferociously defended his turf down the homestretch. The proverbial October Surprise came mid-month when Libri unearthed what he characterized as sloppy record maintenance by Tumulty, who keeps the minutes of Springfield City Council meetings.

By his count, Tumulty committed errors "86.4 percent of the time," citing instances of "important discussion" not appearing in the minutes, misidentified speakers, misstated facts and figures, audio of meetings missing from the city's Web site, and other erroneous information.

"In her announcements and on her Web site she talks about the quality of her record-keeping, her 20-some years as a legal secretary. Quite frankly, if you're saying, 'The quality of my records are better than yours, you'd better be prepared to back that up," says Libri, who also raised the issue in a series of radio ads.

Tumulty says she took the discovery "very seriously," noting that the benefit of her "bringing the city clerk's office out of the dark ages" by posting documents online has enabled such scrutiny of public information. "I'm happy that he's using the Web site," she quips. She made the necessary updates to the Internet site. On Oct. 21, the City Council approved changes to the meeting minutes in question without discussion.

Libri doesn't deny that his office also makes errors. The difference, he says, is that "I have millions of documents. We do millions of keystrokes every year. We file millions of pieces of paper every year. As a matter of fact, in our office we probably answer more phones in a day than she gets in a year. We get more people walking into our office in a day or two than she gets all year.

"So we're talking apples and oranges. Don't forget, much of our work, once it's done, it goes to the judge, it goes to both attorneys. Our stuff gets checked pretty frequently. We still make mistakes," he says.

He also mocks Tumulty's city Web site, boasting that the Web page his office launched in July is the second largest searchable database in the state. "It's the difference between a Maserati and a Volkswagen," says Libri, who also prides himself on the fact that he's reduced headcount by seven employees since he's been in charge.

Tumulty isn't convinced that fewer employees is necessarily a good thing. She says she'll conduct a thorough review of the circuit clerk's operation if voters elect her. "There have been stories about the lines snaking out of the circuit clerk's office and down the hallway with people who are there for traffic court. If there needs to be reallocation of resources then I'll make those decisions and we'll move forward to make each one of those departments run better," she says.

Without a doubt, Libri has the most on the line on Nov. 4. Tumulty has another three years in her current term and, even though she faces term limits, her prospects for a political career remain bright and even more so if Democrats hold on to the governorship in 2010.

Already, murmurs are swirling about a potential coup of Libri's chairmanship after Libri deploys to Afghanistan after the election, which can occur with a vote of no confidence by Republican precinct committeemen.

Irv Smith, who preceded Libri as chairman and held the post for 22 years, says Libri will have a hard time holding on to his jobs as chairman and circuit clerk if party members don't look out for him. Meanwhile, he lauds Libri's management of the circuit clerk's office, which he says "was always a snake pit."

When asked about Libri's effectiveness as a party leader, Smith offers: "One thing that I've learned is that it takes about five years to get the hang of being chairman. You don't walk in and have that automatic trust. You gotta earn it."

Libri came along at a time when the party was floundering, Smith explains. "Being chairman is very lonely. I don't envy anyone in that position," says Smith. "I appreciated the fact that he took the chairmanship." Asked about the support Tumulty has received from Republicans, Smith says, "Suicide is foolish. You're destroying yourselves, but you're not going to destroy us," referring to the party.

In the event that he loses to Tumulty, Libri says he will likely return to the private sector. He went into politics in the early 1980s because his first wife, Donna, had cancer and government work had better health insurance, Libri says.

He adds: "My chairman's job is way down the list of things that are important to me. My God, my family and my job come first. He and his wife, Ann, have a four-year-old daughter.

And if he loses his clerk's job as well?

"Life goes on," he says.

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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