The three candidates to become the next leader of the McLean County Democrats made their pitch Sunday to a roomful of party leaders, agreeing on the need to plan beyond November but differing slightly on a long-term winning strategy.
Patrick Cortesi, Dorothy Deany, and Erik Rankin spoke to more than 50 Democratic Party leaders, including many of the precinct committeemen who will choose the next chair April 18. Longtime party chair John Penn is stepping down after 34 years.
The forum was held at the Normal Public Library. It was moderated by Normal Township Supervisor Sarah Grammer, one of several new faces ascending within the Democratic Party.
Cortesi said the party needs to be “inclusive and welcoming,” a reference to the large number of new members attending party meetings since the 2016 election. Cortesi himself is relatively new to the party; he’s one of the leaders of Indivisible, a grassroots progressive group.
“I can work with a wide variety of people,” said Cortesi, stressing outreach to even rural parts of the county that historically have voted Republican. “We should remember we’re the McLean County Democrats, not the Bloomington-Normal Democrats.”
Rankin and Deany agreed on the need for more diversity within the party. Deany said she wants to increase the size of the party’s executive committee—now four people—to diversify its leadership.
Whoever is elected chair will face a difficult task. After decades of Republican dominance in McLean County, local Democrats have been energized since President Donald Trump’s election. Several first-time Democrats are on the ballot in November, challenging GOP incumbents.
But that energy also presents a challenge: How will the party welcome new progressive voices while not alienating the old guard? One early skirmish played out March 20, when Democratic primary challenger Shayna Watchinski knocked off longtime McLean County Board member Paul Segobiano.
Rankin, a McLean County Board member, said his experience in electoral politics would help the party win elections. He said his professional experience working in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University—leading meetings and working with diverse, opinionated faculty—was also an asset.
“I’m an organizer at heart, and I know how to bring people into the fold,” Rankin said.
All three candidates said the party needed to raise more money. The McLean County Republicans have outraised local Democrats in recent years. Cortesi and Rankin said the party’s two big annual fundraisers are not enough; Deany is a lead organizer of those events. She said the party should do a better job communicating with its members, including asking for money.
Rankin said a monthly party breakfast—like what the McLean County GOP already does—would be a good way to raise a little money while also building social connections. He said having more Democrats on the ballot in November and beyond makes fundraising even more important.
Rankin said that if the party can raise enough money, it should open a storefront office that’s staffed year-round, not just around election time.
“A temporary headquarters makes our party look temporary,” Rankin said.
Deany, a current party co-chair who has been involved for 35 years, said unions have sustained the party—from fundraising to meeting space—and should continue to have a seat at the table.
“I’m the candidate who has the history of the party,” said Deany, noting her role in party events.
Watchinski vs. Segobiano
All three candidates said the McLean County Democratic Party and its leaders should not endorse candidates during the primary. That would be a departure from current party chair John Penn, who endorsed Segobiano over Watchinski in the McLean County Board District 8 Democratic primary.
Segobiano lost handily. He has since told GLT he’s consider endorsing a Republican against Watchinski in November—comments that drew criticism from his fellow Democrats.
“I was disappointed. I’ve known Paul a long time. I’ve known his family. I was disappointed in the way he reacted,” said Deany, noting she had signs for both Segobiano and Watchinski in her yard.
Rankin, who serves with Segobiano on the McLean County Board, agreed.
“I hoped he would’ve shown some grace toward the winner. (Watchinski) won fair and square. It doesn’t diminish the 46 years that he had in that position,” Rankin said. “Do I wish he would take a different tact? I certainly do. I’m a Democrat. I’m a proud Democrat. And I would hope that anybody who’s an elected Democrat would support the Democratic Party.”
Cortesi, landscaper for Bloomington’s District 87 schools, said it was notable that all three candidates agreed about not endorsing in primaries.
“The party should support whoever the winning candidate is,” he said.
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