The future of the McLean County Democratic Party began 14 months ago.
That’s when more than 100 Democrats crowded into a Bloomington union hall on a Thursday night. It was Dec. 1, 2016, and many were still in shock over the recent election of Donald Trump. They talked about how Trump lost Bloomington-Normal but won the county. They mostly focused on the future—breaking into small groups to talk about fundraising and candidate recruitment, and filling open precinct committeemen positions.
“The room was full. The energy was just pulsating. There was a sense of, oh my, what do we do now?” said Sally Pancrazio, a Democratic precinct committeeman from Bloomington. “So it was a very exciting time with all that new energy.”
It was a turning point for the party, one that Democrats hope will lead to electoral victories in November. And they’ll do that under new leadership, with longtime party chair John Penn not seeking re-election in April, opening a three-way race for his successor.
Amid one of the most exciting local election seasons in years, that new chair will have to juggle tricky internal politics—chiefly how to meld the party’s union-backed old guard with an influx of new progressive faces. The goal, Democrats say, is to convert this temporary anti-Trump energy into a more permanent shift in McLean County politics.
“I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the past. We can bridge this gap between what the Democrat Party has been and what many of us want it to be as we look forward,” said Jill Blair of Bloomington, one of many first-time women candidates who turned their post-Trump shock into action. She’s challenging Republican state Rep. Keith Sommer in the 88th House District.
There are three candidates to succeed Penn:
- Dorothy Deany, Penn’s No. 2 and current party co-chair
- Erik Rankin, a McLean County Board member with campaign expertise
- Patrick Cortesi, progressive founder of the local Indivisible movement
Each would have a different approach to bringing together the party’s factions. That includes unions—historically the base of the party—and newer entrants such as progressive activists, women, independents and issue-oriented voters, groups like Stonewall Democrats (LGBTQ) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and collegiate Democrats, to name a few.
“Our new chair has to be able to work with all those diverse groups, welcome them, hear them, reflect on their concerns and issues, and then bring us all together in a way that forms our action agenda,” Pancrazio said. “I know it sounds like I want a Superman, or a Wonder Woman, or a Black Panther coming in as our new chair. But I do think those who’ve announced they’re running either have those traits or they certainly have the potential to develop them.”
Highs and Lows
Not long ago, McLean County Democrats weren’t so energized.
Yes, there have been some smaller successes, like home-state Sen. Barack Obama winning McLean County during his first presidential run in 2008, with 50 percent of the vote. Two-term Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner is a Democrat.
But mostly, McLean County has been red. Republicans hold a 15-to-5 majority on the County Board. All countywide elected officials are Republicans. All locally elected state lawmakers are Republicans, including the Senate minority leader. Unlike downstate metro areas like Peoria and Champaign-Urbana, there are no Democratic state representatives.
Until recently, monthly party meetings would routinely draw only about a dozen people. As recently as the 2012 primary, less than 12 percent of all voters pulled a Democratic ballot. From 2014-2016, more than three-quarters of Democratic precinct committeemen positions—the valuable foot soldiers who make the party’s base—were vacant.
Democrats also lag in fundraising, at least at the party level. The McLean County Republican Central Committee has raised $91,990 in contributions (from individuals, transfers from other organizations, and in-kind gifts) since 2015. The Democrats have received just $45,869.
“I’ve lived here long enough to remember the comment, ‘McLean County Democrats? You’re the group that can meet in a phone booth,’” said Democrat George Gordon, a McLean County Board member and retired Illinois State University professor. “Well now we’re up to at least four or five phone booths. In reality, well beyond that.”
Penn has been chair since 1984, steering the party through ups and downs.
By his own admission, Penn said he has been less hands-on in recent years since taking a job as vice president and Midwest regional manager with the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). That’s left leadership to Deany, who Penn calls the “backbone of the party,” and unofficial leaders like Mike Matejka.
“The right time (to step down) probably would’ve been two years ago, or even 10 years ago, as I took the new position with the Laborers International. And I’ve been on the road so much that I just don’t have the time, and I’m not in town enough, to be a party chairman. I’m probably out of town three to four days a week now.”
Penn’s day job has at times limited the party’s ability to communicate; he’s difficult to schedule for media interviews, for example. All three candidates for chair “are aware of the need to improve communication” with various audiences, Gordon said.
Rankin said this vocal Democratic leadership is key. Liberals in McLean County have always been a little shy, unlike conservatives, he said.
“We have to make people comfortable. That that word isn’t dirty. It’s not wrong. It’s absolutely acceptable for people to espouse their liberal views in McLean County,” he said.
A Shift Begins
Democratic fortunes began to change quickly after Trump’s election.
Democrats nearly swept the election for Normal Township positions in April 2017. That same night Chemberly Cummings, now running for Democratic precinct committeeman, became the first black candidate elected to the nonpartisan Normal Town Council.
The McLean County Democratic Party took some steps to seize this energy and influx of potential candidates. The party paid for six women to attend a one-day Ready to Run candidate recruitment and training program at Western Illinois University, part of the Center for American Women and Politics.
“I am extremely grateful to the Democratic Party executive board to take our interest seriously and provide us with the opportunity,” said Elizabeth Johnston, a first-time candidate who attended Ready to Run. Johnston is running for McLean County Board against GOP incumbent David Selzer in northeast Normal.
Johnston is far from alone. Eleven of 13 county government races will be contested in November, including county clerk. Longtime Republican state Reps. Dan Brady and Keith Sommer will face their first general-election opponents in several years.
Blair, 41, the Democrat challenging Sommer, said “my generation got complacent” after seeing progress on issues like women’s right, racial justice, and LGBTQ rights.
“We thought, ‘Well, there’s no going back,’” Blair said. “The election of 2016 was proof to all of us that you really can move backward on this. And as you make progress, you need to stand up and defend it.”
Internal Democratic Party politics—think Bernie vs. Hillary—are playing out across the country, not just in McLean County. In California, longtime U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein recently lost her own party’s endorsement—a sign that grass-roots Democrats are eager to supplant leaders who are seen as too moderate and willing to compromise. In Chicago, conservative Democrat U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski faces a stiff primary challenger from his left.
This tension exists in McLean County too. Democratic candidate for governor Daniel Biss has won the support of many local progressives, including the endorsement of the ISU Democrats. But Penn has played host several times to Biss’ chief rival, JB Pritzker. The Illinois Democratic County Chairman's Association, of which Penn is a member, endorsed Pritzker last fall.
Rankin said it’s not productive to split up the party by who is “Democrat enough.”
“I look at it like a dysfunctional family,” Rankin said “Everybody’s got that brother or sister or crazy uncle that’s a little out of bounds in terms of how the rest of the family is, but they’re still family. They’re still necessary to make the family effective and successful.”
Cortesi, who only became active in the Democratic Party last year, said his “unique voice and vision for where we need to go as a party” sets him apart as a chair candidate.
“We need to get back to talking about our values. We need to make sure that people in McLean County feel included and part of the process,” Cortesi said.
The party needs to accommodate younger independent-minded voters, said Pancrazio.
“They are more issue-oriented than party-oriented,” Pancrazio said. “We need to listen to them.”
McLean County Democrats have long been associated with organized labor—itself not a monolith. Penn’s dual roles has only reinforced that.
The relationship is personal, financial, and practical. Unions have transferred into or contributed $18,500 to the McLean County Democratic Party since 2016, more than half of all incoming money, records show. Many party events are held at local union halls.
“I know some folks who’ve felt that by not being part of the labor movement, they didn’t feel like they were being made a part of the Democratic Party. I don’t know that that’s fair, I don’t know that that’s accurate, but that’s how they felt,” said Gordon.
That said, Gordon said the new chair can’t turn away from the party’s union roots.
“It is very important that organized labor in McLean County feels that with a change in direction of the party leadership that they aren’t being left behind or in any way being excluded or having their role diminished. There may be some diminishing just because John Penn isn’t going to be chair. Some change is inevitable,” Gordon said.
Deany, the longtime co-chair, said she’d work to keep the party united, welcoming new faces while not “turning away” from unions. She said it’s important to honor traditions like the party’s annual Roosevelt and Baldini dinners.
“I don’t want to see all of the old guard go by the wayside without having a chance to share some of the information that we do have,” Deany said.
Rankin said he too wants to maintain union relationships, though he wants to broaden that to include more workers from local universities and schools. Groups like Black Lives Matter, Voices of Reason, and Indivisible are part of the Democratic tent too, he said.
“They’re just as important as unions,” Rankin said.
Making It Permanent
If anti-Trump sentiment is the fuel that sparked this Democratic resurgence, party officials seem aware it’s not an unlimited power supply.
One day, Trump will no longer be president. What happens if Democrats don’t do as well as expected in November’s elections? Will those who lose leave politics again?
If elected chair, Rankin said he’d focus on giving all those new faces something to do—committees to join, events to run, and other ways to be active party members. That builds a bench of potential candidates for races like school board or county board.
“That’s one of the things that we’ve really struggled with here in McLean County. The Democrats have not traditionally had a bench to build from,” Rankin said.
Deany said she wants to see the party broaden and diversify its executive committee. The four-person executive committee today skews older than many of the party’s newer faces. The McLean County Republican Party, by contrast, has several 20- and 30-somethings on its executive committee.
The next chair needs to build up the party’s fundraising operation, especially to support women candidates who historically have a harder time raising money, said Billy Stripeik, president of ISU’s College Democrats. They also must continue building the ranks of Democratic precinct committeemen—now at healthier levels—to keep the party afloat in tough cycles, he said.
The ISU and Illinois Wesleyan University Democrats have endorsed Rankin, whose campaign experience includes a master’s degree in campaign political management from George Washington University. He’s also served three terms on the Republican-led McLean County Board, though he’s not seeking re-election so he can run for party chair.
“It’s going to take a lot of guidance and experience in electoral politics to guide the Democratic Party to victory in 2018,” said Stripeik, who is managing the county clerk campaign for Democrat Nikita Richards against GOP incumbent Kathy Michael.
The county’s demographics—an urban college town surrounded by rural voters—may be changing in the Democrats’ favor. It’s becoming more diverse. The county added 22,000 residents between 2000 and 2016, but the percentage of those who are white has dropped from 89.2 percent to 84 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. White, rural voters are more likely to vote Republican.
Trump narrowly won the county as a whole (by just 1,041 voters) but lost Bloomington-Normal, where the bulk of voters live. In 2008, Obama won Bloomington-Normal precincts with 54 percent of the vote over Republican John McCain, despite only winning the county overall by just 922 votes.
“The county is trending certainly away from rock-ribbed Republican,” said Gordon. “The default setting is that it’s still going to be Republican. Bloomington and Normal, maybe not. And the people (elsewhere) in the county … their default setting may be, ‘I’m going to vote Republican unless I have a real good reason not to.’ Maybe they’ll be a real good reason not to sometime.”
As Democrats change, their opponents aren’t standing still. On the right, the McLean County GOP will also be selecting a new chair in April to replace Chuck Erickson, who is not seeking a third term. And the McLean County Libertarian Party—appearing on local ballots for the first time—may go after voters who are liberal on social issues like marijuana legalization.
“We’ll see what direction the party goes, but they’ve got a good foundation,” Penn said. “I think it’s going to be a pretty exciting for the Democrats over the next several years.”
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