Democrats meet to nominate candidates for Congress

 

By David Roknich

 

Last Saturday, the Democrats of Illinois’ 17th Congressional District set in motion a process to select a replacement for 12-term incumbent Congressman Lane Evans. The Illinois State Board of Elections and Attorney General Lisa Madigan had bowed out early when asked to clarify “issues involved in the selection process,” according to Rock Island attorney Stuart Lefstein. He was subsequently retained by the Democratic State Central Committeemen for the district, Don Johnston and Mary Boland, to provide a legal opinion. The main roadblock foreseen was a debate over whether the vote to select Evans’ replacement would be limited to only the elected Precinct Committeemen.

By necessity, many Committeemen are appointed after the primary election by the County Chairmen to fill vacancies. There are 723 precincts in the 17th district and only 394 elected Precinct Committeemen. Allowing appointed committeemen the right to vote for a replacement candidate would give undue weight to the voice of the county chairmen, according to Lefstein, who based his interpretation on “a legislative preference for democratic values.” One unexpected consequence of Lefstein’s legal opinion is that the votes of a precinct may be “split as a committeeman sees fit”, although this is consistent with his guiding principle of “democratic values”. This opens the field without giving undue preference to any of the candidates.

The procedure that Johnston read to a packed crowd at the Kensington Ballroom in Galesburg was accepted without dissent; ballots will be sent to the elected committeemen who will have 15 days to return them.

Five candidates were nominated. Each would give a 10-minute speech, and names would be drawn from a hat to determine the order of the speeches, which would also be the order their names will appear on the ballot.

Mark Schwiebert of Rock Island was first to speak and gave a polished, though low-key, presentation. He enjoys a strong following as the popular mayor of Rock Island, but failed to rouse the audience to more than a polite ovation.

The next speaker, Rob Mellon is the youngest candidate, and he offered some innovative ideas for spurring the production of alternative energy. His position on the Iraq war — to send in more troops and special forces— may be out of step with what people now want, but his voice is appreciated among party faithful — like fellow Congressional hopeful Mike Boland, for instance, who nominated him.

Boland drew the third position and in his speech played up the value of his accomplishments in the Illinois House, where he chaired the committee that drew up the current guidelines for elections and campaigns. Boland pointed out that with only five months to go in this contest, name recognition could give him an edge, and he drew a few chuckles with his joke about Ray LaHood coaching Zinga on how to be “kinder and gentler.”

It is expected that John Sullivan will be a top contender. He currently represents 13 counties in the southern part of the district. Like Schwiebert, his speech was polished and timed perfectly for his 10-minute slot. His focus was on local issues, and perhaps this is why the room just didn’t light up.

That changed when Phil Hare headed toward the podium, like the cleanup hitter coming to bat in the final inning. He stepped up confidently to a warm welcome.

“The way Democrats are going to win this year is to talk about issues that matter to average, ordinary, everyday people,” stated Hare and as he began to connect his personal experience to his current opposition to lopsided trade agreements. His proposals drew repeated rounds of spontaneous applause from the crowd, which seemed to grow larger as he spoke.

“I will always oppose NAFTA, I will oppose any trade deal this government makes that out-sources American jobs. I think it is criminal…”

And at that point, he was drowned out by applause. But he was just starting to warm up: “People ask me ‘whatta you gonna do Phil?’ Well, I’ll tell you what we should do to Maytag .That company should be faced with federal law that says if you want to want to leave… you’re going to have to pay the costs of retraining and relocating workers, not the American taxpayer.” And he accused the current congress with lacking the will to do anything for the working people, even while companies like ExxonMobil enjoy record profits. “I’d back down to no one”, said Hare. “If they ratchet the prices up, they’ll have to ratchet them right back down or pay a windfall profits tax”

The question is whether a freshman from Illinois can make a difference, and Hare said the answer lies in “getting our party to believe again and getting our voice back… because the problem with the Democratic Party is that it’s lost its voice. We’re not going to win on the basis of ‘Bush is bad and Zinga’s clueless,’ we need to let people know we’re on their side and we’re going to try to make things better for them.”

Afterwards, I asked Hare about the possibility of a legal challenge to the process of selecting a candidate.  “I certainly hope not… This process has been dragging on long enough and it’s time to get the ballots out…. I’ve been for the inclusion of the appointed [committeemen] but if I don’t prevail in that, that’s fine. But I think it’s important for more people in our party to be involved, making calls, and working in the trenches.”

 

Dave Roknich, a Knox College Graduate, has returned to live in Galesburg, where he composes music while editing an online aberration called DOGSPOT. His freshest links are at http://dogspot.us