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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 04:44 pm

Now’s the time to get involved in local politics

Can it be possible that the good ol’ boy political machine is weakening in Sangamon County? Clearly, some kind of change is underway. The normally disciplined and restrained Republican Party engages in open warfare and the Democrats struggle to rebuild after years of intra-party battles and organizational inertia. Despite the gradual decline of political party influence on the political process nationally over time, writing an epitaph for political parties in Sangamon County is premature. Political parties still play an important role as an entry point for individual involvement and structure for collective action.

But the opportunity to reshape our politics in Sangamon County is ripe for the taking. Being an active Democrat, I can’t speak for the Republicans, but it seems that both sides are witnessing, perhaps reluctantly, a changing of the guard. Jim Moody, the chair of the Democratic Party of Sangamon County, has announced he will not run for reelection. Tony Libri, chair of the Sangamon County GOP, is being challenged by some within his party for the top spot. While the party chair, in theory, does not solely determine the direction of the party, the chair is a key driver of the political agenda and responsible for basic party functions like candidate recruitment and support.

To be successful in the long run, party chairs, like politicians, must respond first to the demands of those who elect them and then more broadly to their members or constituents. In each party, elected precinct committeemen/women elect their leader. The Republican slate has 42 contested precinct-level seats, which sets the stage for potential turnover there. The Democrats, on the other hand, have 107 precincts without a candidate slated for the March primary. That leaves the decision of who will be chair in the hands of the 75 people who win their precinct seats in March. But Democrats who want to help select the next party chair and move the party forward can still run for precinct committeeman/woman as write-in candidates.

While electing the right county chair to lead our party is vital, we Democrats – formally elected or not – must do much more. So if you are a Democrat who has been sitting on the sidelines – here’s your chance to make a difference. Get engaged! Ours is the party that fights for economic fairness, workers’ rights, equality for all people and to protect basic services for our most vulnerable citizens – a proud tradition.

Locally, Democrats need to challenge the status quo, ask questions, demand change and be willing to work on solutions to strengthen our community for everyone, not just the connected few. Democrats need to establish themselves as the party of the future because of the priorities we set and the people and issues we care about, not the jobs or favors we deliver.

Let’s face it. We in Springfield and Sangamon County are products of a very political environment. Politics permeates our government, businesses, agencies, schools, churches and other aspects of our lives. But we can no longer just accept the notion that to get ahead here one must be forever indebted to power elites.

Patronage-based politics is gasping its last breath. Democrats, Republicans, independents and others need to shed the old way of doing business and help craft a future that reduces our dependence on a system that swaps government jobs for loyalty and fuels “what’s in it for me” politics. Government and politics are likely to always play an important role in Springfield and Sangamon County, but what form they take is ours to shape.  

Sheila Stocks-Smith is a special projects consultant and adjunct professor at UIS teaching a class on public policy. She has been active with the Sangamon County Democrats since 2003.
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