McLean County Democrats have their sights set on something that once seemed unimaginable -- gaining majority power on the county board.
Republicans controlled three-fourths of the seats on the board just two years ago. Now, the GOP is trying to ward off another "blue wave" in the Nov. 3 election.
Democrat Benjamin Webb laid out the party's goal during a recent candidate forum. He tied it to the most pressing local and national issue--the pandemic response.
“As we see the national response to COVID-19 kind of trickling down to our local communities and our state, I want to see how a Democratic majority can really make some decisions to make this community a little bit stronger,” Webb said.
Webb, who teaches at University High School in Normal, is one of six Democrats trying to flip county board seats from red to blue. Webb is the only one not facing an incumbent. Opponent Adelita Cruz is running for the District 4 seat as William Caisley isn’t seeking reelection. District 4 covers part of west Normal and areas to the north.
Cruz said she's a contact center business manager. She's also a political newcomer who seems to embrace Republican party ideals.
“What I look to have is less dependence on government and more independence,” Cruz said at the forum. “The way that I look at it for the county government is we would depend on them to maintain ... safety of our roads, to help just as Ben said with the financial oversight of some of the departments.”
Republicans hold a 13 to 7 majority on the county board. The GOP lost two seats two years ago. For the Democrats to win majority, they would need to take four of the six seats Republicans currently hold and defend two Democrat-held seats. The Democrats who held those seats aren't on the ballot. George Gordon lost in the primary, and Carlo Robustelli resigned in September for a job relocation.
Nikita Richards, chair of the McLean County Democrats, said it’s time for change.
“I think it’s time for new leadership, leadership that is willing to listen more and willing to take the necessary actions,” she said.
Richards said Democrats are running on a desire to upend the status quo, with several common themes, including greater transparency, environmental safety and greater partnership with the county health department. She said that goes beyond the pandemic response.
“There are so many things we could be doing,” Richards said. “Take for instance the needle exchange program, something that we could increase. We could have more partnership with the McLean County Health Department as it relates to programming."
Richards said the county could expand the health department's partnerships with organizations such as Planned Parenthood to offer more services.
Republican County Board Chairman John McIntyre makes a case for the status quo. He said new county board members face a steep learning curve.
“I think new members think they know what’s going on, but they don’t understand always,” McIntyre said. “That happens a lot with any organization, but with 20 members it does make a difference.”
McIntyre has been on the county board for 18 years over two stints. He has chaired the board since 2016.
McIntyre faces two opponents as he tries to keep his District 5 seat--Democrat Rachael Lund, and Libertarian Jo Ann Litwiller. District 5 covers parts of north Normal.
McIntyre said he's less concerned about how many Republicans and how many Democrats serve on the board than how willing they are to work together.
“The non-partisanship approach to our board has been very effective,” McIntyre said. “I am concerned about that more than I am the party in power.”
But McIntrye doesn't divorce himself entirely from party philosophy.
“Being a Republican, I feel like the philosophy that Republicans have brought to that board over the years has been one that has served our county well,” he said. “It is a conservative approach at times, but not always. It’s also been creative and we have expanded services quite a bit."
In particular, the county has expanded mental health programs that are partly funded by Bloomington and Normal sales taxes.
Richards said her party also can find solutions that go beyond partisan lines.
“The local GOP doesn’t own being fiscally responsible,” Richard said. “Democrats and independents and many others share the understanding of how important it is to be fiscally responsible and our candidates certainly understand that.”
Richards points to auditor candidate Rob Fazzini's push to lower the salary for that office.
Democrats also are trying to unseat Republicans from two county offices, auditor and coroner.
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