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McLean County Board election dynamics are more fluid than usual

Election banner at ISU voting site
Ryan Denham

Democratic Party turnover on the McLean County Board is complicating a years-long effort by the party to boost its representation as both major parties position themselves for the next election cycle. It's unlike the traditional pattern of board members, who often are incumbents term after term.

Four incumbent Democratic McLean County Board members have decided not to run for their current seats. That means new faces will have to introduce themselves to voters in a year projected to be a challenging one for the party. Most midterm elections are rough for the party that holds the presidency. That can trickle down ballot even to the local level.

Sharon Chung is one of the board members not running for retention. She's actually trying to take a step up and is running for an open Illinois House seat. Chung said she decided that race was too much of an opportunity to pass up. That's even though Chung said she doesn't like the idea of losing ground on the board when she is not there to hold an incumbent's advantage in name recognition and an established record.

"That was a factor I thought about a lot. Cause I know we have made a lot of strides on getting parity on the county board. When I first ran, there were only five Democrats. And after I won, there were seven and then after 2020, there were nine. So, we're chipping away. I'm really excited to see where it might go," said Chung.

In addition to Chung's departure, longtime incumbent Laurie Wollrab is stepping down after a distinguished tenure on the board. Incumbent Ben Webb is resigning his current seat because of a move and will run in a different district with new voters to get to know. And Shayna Watchinski is stepping down.

"We had a sense that some of this was coming. And so we were able to work with that. It probably ended up being a good thing, honestly," said Patrick Cortesi, chair of the McLean County Democratic Party.

It's up to each candidate to make their own case to voters in their district, but Cortesi said the party record on the board as a whole will be something to present to voters as well.

"We were able to take the map making process out of the back rooms and we put it out in the public, right? We turned it over to nonpartisan committees," said Cortesi.

Cortesi also said County Board Democrats should take credit for business growth. That involves full-throated support of wind farms, solar farms, and the proposal to bring Rivian to the community. He said some others in the community were afraid to take a chance and help Rivian get started.

Changing demographics and party growth have helped McLean County Democrats dismiss the tired label of a weak organization in a traditionally red area over several election cycles. That matters, too.

"Sharon and Shayna showed people that we were capable of winning big races," said Cortesi.

Opportunities for Republicans

Republicans, as you might expect, don't see the election year quite that way. GOP County Chair Connie Beard is looking at those open seats formerly held by Democrats.

"Any time you have a shift in elected leadership, you are going to have opportunities," said Beard.

Both party leaders said it boils down to having quality candidates. Beard said the open seats and the midterm dynamic make her job easier this year.

"You are always wanting to look for good people. It makes people understand that now is a good chance to offer some alternatives to what the voters have had before," she said.

The GOP has not yet released its slate. Beard said there's a new tool to help her party make sure those interested will be able to run strong races. It's called the Candidate Assessment and Accountability Review Committee, or CAAR.

"I have felt for a long time that having voter guides for local elections was important. I have not thought we have done a good job in — I guess vetting is the popular term to use — but gathering information on candidates so voters can have a better understanding of who they are voting for," said Beard.

Beard said the GOP is still recruiting for the fall. Only one candidate is public, William Holditch in the 10th district, said Beard. When that ticket firms up, Beard said the party will know how to target districts for extra effort.

One of the advantages for both parties fielding slates this year is that pandemic-related changes mean candidates don't need as many signatures on their nominating petitions. That gives them more time to spend getting to know voters instead of checking boxes and making sure forms are accurate.

McLean County Democrats haven't announced a full slate yet either, but a Facebook post for a fundraiser showed four incumbents and six other candidates for the nine seats the party already holds on the 20-member board. They are:

  • Board Member Elizabeth Johnston D5
  • Board Member Lea Cline D8
  • Board Member Val Laymon D7
  • Board Member Jim Rogal D4
  • Candidate Matt Coates D4
  • Candidate Fay Freeman-Smith D3
  • Candidate Jack Abraham D6
  • Candidate Ben Webb D7
  • Candidate Jeannie Biles D8
  • Candidate Brandy Elmore D9

The number of open seats made Democrats change their approach to candidate recruiting.
"Probably the most diverse slate of candidates we've ever put forth. I'm real proud of that. I think it's a slate that truly represents who we are as McLean County," said Cortesi.

Cortesi said he hopes that new energy will sustain the momentum that Democrats have had in recent years. And population patterns have made parts of the city of Bloomington more blue than red.

Meanwhile, the pandemic policies of Gov. JB Pritzker and the midterm status are energizing Republicans. Beard thinks there will be a shift in voting patterns that will help the GOP make inroads in the districts Democrats have claimed.

"Just based on the general demeanor of the public at large, the sense of how people are talking, what they are saying, what they are focusing on, what their interests are. I do believe we may be surprised at how voting shifts this year," said Beard.

But there's always a but.

"You know, it's politics. How can any of us have a firm belief of how it's going to go?" said Beard.

That's why they hold elections.

The filing period for candidate nominating petitions is March 7-14.

Editor's note: This article has been edited to add incumbent Jim Rogal to the list of Democratic candidates.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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