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McLean County Board Exits Signal End Of An Era

William Caisley and George Gordon seated at board meeting
WGLT file photos
McLean County Board members William Caisley, left, and George Gordon have spent a cbombined 38 years on the board.

Two of McLean County's longest-serving elected officials are set to exit the stage.

Retiring County Board members George Gordon and William Caisley both acknowledge it's time for new voices in county government, but they are concerned the bipartisanship they prided themselves in practicing is fading.

McLean County Board virtual meeting
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
McLean County Board member Laurie Wollrab read a proclamation honoring retiring board member George Gordon during a virtual meeting on Nov. 17.

Gordon, of Normal, was known as the board's parliamentarian. He frequently kept his colleagues on task when they strayed from meeting rules of order.

The retired politics and government professor at Illinois State University leaves the board after 24 years.

Caisley, also of Normal, was known for expertise of the judiciary. That comes from his decades as an attorney and judge. Caisley joked he first ran for county board in 2006 so he wouldn't keep getting called back to the bench in retirement.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my career as a judge and I knew that I could not tell them no, so I decided there would be a good reason why I would have to tell them (no),” recalled Caisley, who is leaving the board after 14 years.

Gordon and Caisley take pride in their work on the county board, setting policy and weighing in on controversial issues. Gordon recalled an effort he led to block an oil company that wanted to drill near Downs. Gordon persuaded his colleague to vote "no" because of the site's proximity to the Mahomet Aquifer, a major central Illinois water source.

“I contributed to making that difference. I am nowhere near claiming--and I shouldn’t--a solo,” Gordon said. “Nobody does a solo in a legislative body."

Sometimes, legislators lead and no one follows. Caisley recalled a time he tried to force a wind farm developer to install fire suppression devices in its turbines. He argued small, rural fire departments wouldn't be able to handle a wind farm fire.

“It ended up with me going down in flames in a 19-to-1 vote,” Caisley quipped.

Still Caisley, a Republican, said the lesson learned from that experience is, sometimes you have to go against your party and sometimes even your own constituents if you have done your homework.

“If they knew what I know then they would probably vote the way I did,” he said.

Gordon and Caisley both said they see less of that in government today. Caisley chose not to seek re-election. At 80, he said he'd like to escape Illinois winters, but he'll stay involved in the community.

Gordon's exit wasn't voluntary. The 77-year-old was seeking another two years, but he lost in the Democratic primary to college student Hannah Beer.

Gordon said he didn't see it coming.

“I was not expecting that. I think the best way to sum it up is apparently enough people in District 6 thought it was time for a change,” said Gordon, who is a political scientist. Yet he said he struggles to come up with an explanation for how it happened.

Gordon's defeat drew comparisons to 2018, when another long-serving Democrat on the county board, Paul Segobiano, lost in the primary to another political newcomer, Shayna Watchinski.

Gordon sees a common thread.

“If you are wondering about Shayna Watchinski and Hannah Beer, can I recite the initials AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? This is part of a larger pattern, but not just locally,” Gordon said.

The New York congresswoman known as AOC is considered to be the one of the leading voices of the young progressive movement in the Democratic Party. That movement has maintained that establishment Democrats often don't fight hard enough for the issues important to them.

Here's how Gordon sizes it up.

“Younger, more assertive, if not more aggressive, candidates are taking a look at long-timers and saying, ‘Why can’t it be my turn?'”

Caisley endorsed a potential successor for his seat, Adelita Cruz, who lost to Democrat Benjamin Webb.

Caisley suggested the "top of the ticket" made the difference as President Donald Trump lost McLean County, just the second Republican presidential candidate to lose in McLean County in 56 years.

As Webb prepares to replace him on the board, Caisley stressed the value of experience and a nonpartisan spirit.

“I would tell him to maintain a low profile for a while. Do not follow other Democrats on the board. Don’t regard every issue as being a partisan issue,” Caisley said.

Caisley and Gordon said you also also stand up for what they believe in, and that you can't and shouldn't have consensus on every issue.

Gordon recalled a conversation with a new board member who said they would probably never agree on anything. Gordon replied they could probably find common ground somewhere, but if not, that's OK.

“Even if you are right, between the two of us we are representing different constituencies in the county and that gives the county population better representation,” Gordon told the board member.

The county board is set to lose nearly 40 years of government experience, but it may become more diverse than ever before. The new board set to be sworn in next month will be nearly split between Republicans and Democrats and nine of the 20 elected members are women. 

The voard probably will have another departure soon. Republican Jacob Beard lost in the general election to Democrat Val Laymon, who pulled ahead this week after leftover mail and absentee ballots were counted. Beard could seek a recount.

New county board members will be sworn in Dec. 7.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.