Democrats get involved in GOP dispute over committeemen elections

Andrew Thomason

An ideological fight in the state Republican Party is moving ahead at the state Capitol this spring – with some Democrats aiding in the dispute.

Republican insurgents say they are trying to bring control of the GOP to the grassroots through a measure that would force the election of some top party leaders, known as central committeemen. Local party officials elected by rank-and-file Republicans currently select central committeemen.

"The right to vote, the tradition of one person one vote is the foundation to our democracy. It should be the foundation to our current Republican Party," said Sen. Chris Lauzen, R-Aurora, who is pushing the change.

But the leadership of the state GOP views Lauzen as leading an unwanted mutiny.

"You have one disgruntled senator ... and he has a faction of three or five people who want to hijack the party," said state Rep. Skip Saviano, R-Elmwood Park, who serves as a central committeeman.

The election idea came up for a vote when Lauzen pushed it at the state GOP convention last summer.

Lauzen and others with strongly conservative views have complained in recent years that party leadership has moved too far to the left for their liking. The party has struggled recently, losing the legislature, governor's mansion and other statewide officer seats to the Democrats, leading to more dissatisfaction among Lauzen's allies.

But Lauzen's idea was overwhelmingly defeated by a 556-170 vote. Rosemarie Long, acting chairwoman of the Sangamon County Republican Party, was one of the 556 voting 'no'.

"There was some controversy over it but it was an overwhelming decision to keep (the central committeemen system) as is. When I came away from the convention I just figured it was all settled and done," Long said.   

But now Lauzen is looking to "staunch, principled Republicans" and top Democrats such as Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, to support his measure, Senate Bill 600.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno is one of the Republicans backing Lauzen.

Radogno said she made a commitment to stand with Lauzen and will honor that, regardless of other Republicans' stances.

"Obviously, there are some differences of opinion on whether or not it is a good thing or a bad thing. Quite frankly, I do not think it will be the demise or the salvation of the Republican Party," said Radogno, R-Lemont.

But others in the party view Lauzen's effort as an attempted hijacking by a small majority and a tool for Democrats to further weaken the party.

"This move by Democrats to punish our party is unprecedented but is no surprise coming from the same group of individuals who endorsed and enabled the most corrupt governor in America (ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich) for the last six years," Illinois GOP spokesman Lance Trover said.

As Lauzen works for support on his measure, which could get a Senate vote this week, Democrats have jumped in the fray.

Last week, Democrats in both the House and Senate attached the language creating the Republican central committeemen elections to measures that would no longer require voters to declare party preferences in primary elections.

Some Republicans see the move as nothing more than Democratic interference.

But Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, insists the addition to the open primary measure is not a partisan attack. Democrats already elect their committeemen.

"I believe that this adds to the process of open and transparent government. It adds to the process allowing people to vote for all of their leaders in the state of Illinois, whether party leaders or elected officials," Lang said.

Even if Lauzen's idea clears the legislature and gets signed into law by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, the fight will continue.

State Republican Party officials already are planning to go to court to get it overturned, arguing legal precedent sides with political parties in similar cases. 

"The First Amendment freedom of association provides protection for parties, not only to determine for themselves who is part of the party but also who the party leadership is and how those leaders are elected," Illinois GOP lawyer Bill McGinley said.

Lauzen sees that as more incentive for party elections.   

"It is preposterous and I think it is one of the best arguments in favor of SB600 that our leadership says, 'If you are successful ...we will sue to make sure you can't vote,'" Lauzen said.

Andrew Thomason can be reached at (217) 782-6882