by John F. Di Leo -
The Framers of the Constitution were geniuses – as a group, they were certainly the most thoughtful, far-thinking, visionary, and principled generation in history.
But even so, they made a few mistakes. The first plan for the presidency and vice presidency was for the first runner up to the presidency to be his vice president... they hoped that with a few constraints and sufficient economic growth, the awful practice of slavery might end on its own in a generation or two… and they thought that a republic could be successful without political parties.
This last point was the first to be proven wrong. By the end of President George Washington’s first term, his own Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was building a party apparatus with House Speaker James Madison to oppose the President’s agenda.
Political Parties – Promises and Results
The Founders were philosophically opposed to the concept of partisanship. They’d watched the king’s party of Lord North and Champagne Charley Townshend vie with the Rockingham faction of Edmund Burke and his (classical) liberals, and they desperately wanted to avoid going down that road. The very size of the United States made them think they could do it.
There was certainly logic behind their theory. With all the competing interests – rural vs city, farmer vs merchant, large state vs small state – the Founding Fathers believed that alliances would be continually shifting, as in fact they had during the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention itself. Northerner Hamilton of New York might forge an alliance with Southerner Madison of Virginia on one issue; little Connecticut’s Sherman might strike up a deal with huge Pennsylvania’s Morris on another. There were no parties; alliances shifted with the subject at hand.
So when we look at the maneuvering in Washington today, how partisan rivalries direct everything from choice of Speaker to the calling of bills to be voted on, we certainly see why our Founders hoped to avoid it. But it wasn’t to be. Parties are a part of our world
Nowhere is this more evident than at the local level, as we witness the operation of our township boards, school boards, library boards, park boards, and our city and village governments.
Where there are parties in place – such as in the townships and cities that set Republicans against Democrats – we see the transparency that only partisan rancor can provide. Republicans expose the overspending of the Democrats, or the Democrats challenge the Republicans on policy choices, and the voters are presented with a clear choice on Election Day.
In townships like Wheeling, Palatine, Maine and Northfield, we can tell the difference between the two sides, the same way we see partisan differences played out at the state and federal level. This allows us to make intelligent decisions on Election Day, as there is no doubt about what each side stands for.
And for contrast, unfortunately, we can also look to many of our other local races, especially school boards and even some townships, for the disastrous record of nonpartisanship.
Without the clear-cut difference between known parties – Republicans stand for small government, traditional values, low taxes and responsible spending; Democrats stand for government growth, cultural libertinism, and fiscal irresponsibility – the voters are unable to easily identify the options on their ballots, and they end up choosing candidates for the worst of reasons: “I went to school with his brother” or “my son knows her son from soccer” or “this one has experience because he’s the incumbent.”
And so we have the most profligate local governments in history, and as a result, the highest property taxes and sales taxes in the country.
The Nonpartisan Dream
Where these races are completely nonpartisan and independent – such as in school districts like D15 and D211 – board elections are very challenging. Concerned citizens can mount an effort to oppose the incumbents, but it’s difficult.
The majority of incumbents at that level tend to act as rubber stamps for the administration; they may think they’re independent, but they trust the teachers’ unions implicitly. No matter how honorable their intent, they tend to assume that the administration and the teachers, who are after all there in the schools every day, are the experts. Such board members may not mean to act as mouthpieces for the teachers’ unions, but that is the unavoidable conclusion from such an attitude. Nonpartisan board members – with some rare exceptions – either forget, or never understood in the first place, that their real job is to be the advocates for taxpayers and students, not for the teachers.
The local press knows the teachers’ union and the school administrators; the students and parents know the teachers… over the years, families who stay in district wind up voting for incumbents because they were the teachers or principals when the voters were students themselves. In reality, it seems, contrary to the old saying, familiarity breeds votes, not contempt as it sometimes should.
So what must challengers do? If they stand for the taxpayer and the student, they must organize their own yard sign campaigns, their own literature drop efforts, their own letter-to-the-editor campaigns. Challengers are up against the incumbents, against the teachers’ union, and against the Democratic Party… because the Republicans normally stay out of nonpartisan races, but nothing keeps Democrat activists out of an election. When a Democrat says the word “nonpartisan,” you’ll always see him demonstrate the air quotes around the word.
Remember, the teachers’ unions are part and parcel of the Democratic party; they have been for a century. This is nothing against individual teachers; many are terrific, principled, dedicated, wonderful people, politically independent and as disgusted with the union’s destructive politics as you and I are. But the fact remains that the unions – as a block – function as a key element of the Democratic party coalition. When you draw a Venn Diagram of the Democratic Party and the teachers’ unions, you need very good eyesight to see more than one circle.
So we should compliment the challengers:
- Talented and dedicated advocates like Jean Forrest, Katherine David, and Ralph Bonatz, running in District 211, a district that embarrassed itself in national news for capitulating to an insane federal regulator’s dream of implementing unisex bathrooms and locker rooms in the high schools.
- And the talented team of Barbara Kain, Frank Annerino, Michael Smolka, Anthony Wang, and Lisa Beth Szczupaj, running as a courageous team in District 15, challenging a field of D15 incumbents who originally claimed independence, but on whose behalf the local teachers’ union has produced multiple mailings, walked precincts and flooded the area with yard signs.
- And so many more good patriots and committed taxpayer advocates, in districts across the state, standing up to the old guard of tax-and-spend extravagance that has landed Illinois on top of every list of bankrupt states, bleeding jobs and taxpayers more than any other state.
It’s hard to run for office, even with a political party on your side… but if you have the teachers’ union and your opponents don’t, it’s a lot easier.
Kudos to those with the courage to take the fight to election day and stand up for our students and our wallets against the NEA, the IEA, and all the rest of the people who’ve landed Illinois squarely at the bottom for so long.
The Caucus System
In an effort to honor the “town meeting” concept of the early days of the Republic, and in an effort to keep costs down by avoiding the need for primary elections, many communities utilize what’s known as the Caucus system.
With this idea – which varies from community to community – a loose local association of civic groups gathers every two years to organize internal interview committees and endorse candidates for local offices (full disclaimer: as president of the Maine South Adult Players, a community theater troupe, I served on the school board caucus in Park Ridge in 1987).
These groups gather, interview candidates, and endorse a slate, typically for school boards, but the method is also used for other races as well. In New Trier Township, for example, they use the caucus system for the township board of trustees.
This sounds wonderfully representative, doesn’t it? The presidents of the Jaycees, the Garden Club, the Lions and Rotary, the Chamber of Commerce, the Little League and the local theater troupes, all get together and form committees to handpick the best candidates for local office. It does sound like the town meetings of old, in a way…
But there’s a flaw in this system. The garden club, the theater troupe, and the sports teams elected their presidents for their expertise on gardening, theatrical production, and organized sports management. Their presidents were not chosen because their membership agreed with them on how a school board, library board, township or park district should be run.
And that flaw just contributes – all too often – to the very same problem we saw above: people without an active interest in managing tax dollars are selecting candidates, so those candidates are likely to listen to the people perceived as experts: the employees of the district who they’re elected to manage.
In addition to this flaw, we have an added level of arrogance, because the caucus system enables their officials to pretend that they are “above politics”… they don’t wallow in the gutter of a harsh election campaign, like congressmen and senators and presidents do; no, they’re chosen by their peers, carefully selected by the nonpolitical, nonpartisan leaders of local civic groups. They are the angels, selected by other angels for their worthiness, and therefore are rightly above the rest of the partisan fray. Such candidates and incumbents don’t even consider themselves politicians.
And in a world of open meetings laws, campaign finance regulations, and an utterly bankrupt state like Illinois, that can’t lead to anything good.
New Trier Township
A case in point is the township of New Trier, the lovely collection of northern Chicagoland suburbs that starts at the Evanston-Wilmette border and continues north along Lake Michigan up to the Lake County line: Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Kenilworth, and the eastern bits of Glenview and Northfield as well.
Unlike most townships in Illinois, New Trier doesn’t have miles of township roads and unincorporated areas. Most townships are responsible for the paving and plowing of some of the streets, and for either the water and sewer, and fire and police protection of those unincorporated areas, or the management of contracts for such services with the incorporated areas within or near the township’s borders. But New Trier has none of that. All the roads that travel through New Trier are village, city, state or federal roads; all the land is part of the villages and cities named above.
This township, therefore, unlike most townships, has practically nothing to do. It’s not necessary in any way.
But this is Illinois, so we can’t have that! We must MAKE something to do… we must FIND something to keep them busy!
Remember the renewed federalism of the 1980s, when the federal government said “let’s save money by disbanding a layer of bureaucracy, and just send block grants back to the states, and from the states back to the counties, and let them distribute it”? Remember that?
Well, that’s what New Trier Township can do. They get federal and state block grants, and they can distribute them. They can act as a charity themselves, with a food pantry, and as a master charity disburser, rather like United Way.
So every year, the New Trier Township Board writes checks. They pass on the tax dollars they’ve received from county, state, and federal governments, and they disburse them to (hopefully worthy) causes in and around the area. For example, in 2015:
- They ran a food pantry, giving food to 131 households, like lots of churches and synagogues do.
- They distributed 500 “back to school” gift cards to local kids, which the schools or the chamber of commerce could easily do.
- They distributed 170 holiday dinners to needy North Shore residents.
- They also passed out holiday grocery cards to 95 seniors, and gave Christmas presents (sorry, they’re reported as “holiday gifts”) to 64 more children.
- And the list goes on. They do even more… they proudly provide taxicab service to some seniors, and escort people to doctors’ appointments, and eight families even receive grocery deliveries from the township. How nice.
This is all lovely. But it is also very duplicative. We already have a myriad of welfare programs in this state, providing shelter, food, heat, education, and checks of all kinds, from WIC cards to every form of assistance. We don’t need another level of government to do all this.
But every person who receives one of those dinners, cab rides, and “back to school” gift cards remembers that they got it from the township board.
And every worthy charity that receives a check ($10,000 to Clearbrook, $127,500 to Glenkirk, $95,000 to Our Place, $15,000 to Lambs Farm, etc., etc.) also remembers that they got it from the township board.
Was the township the SOURCE of that money? Of course not. The taxpayers were. But the township board looks generous by being the ones to distribute all this cash.
What if there were no township, no county, no government agency? What would happen? Well, the private sector would still fund these worthy organizations… Individuals write checks, corporations write checks, charitable clearinghouses like United Way raise money voluntarily and distribute it, all in ways and numbers that dwarf the money that a township can deliver.
But this system entrenches the township board… and it’s one of the many ways that local governments all over the state build their name recognition and remain in office: by passing around other people’s money.
The New Trier Township Board – unlike most in our area – is nonpartisan, selected by a caucus. And this year, 2017, they are challenged, for the first time in memory.
A group of diligent local taxpayer advocats – Bob Costello, Stacey Woehrle, and Kathy Myalls – are challenging the Caucus-picked slate, pointing out that the township’s 35% overhead (just to be a clearinghouse for charitable contributions? Really?) is unacceptable, and that it’s time for tighter, more rational management.
In addition, this election has revealed the arrogance of the caucus system, as the caucus-picked incumbents have refused to answer the kinds of questions that any normal politician knows he must answer: they won’t open the township’s checkbook for review; they refuse to file a campaign committee in compliance with Illinois State Board of Elections requirements; they amazingly refuse to admit that there are tons of in-kind contributions coming in to support them from the interests that benefit from the status quo.
In New Trier and across the state, the lid is being pulled back to reveal the arrogance, the waste, and the corruption of nonpartisan and caucus systems at the local level. We see tax dollars wasted, power abused, communities awash in insider advantages that one expects in the third world, not here in America’s heartland.
On April 4, Illinoisans will have a chance to turn out the establishment and elect independent taxpayer advocates. All over the state, from border to border, we have good people running. They’re easy to find: just look for the people who don’t have their board’s own employees “volunteering” for their campaigns.
And then, maybe the day after this election, we can start having a conversation about abandoning this whole failed “nonpartisan” idea. When someone calls himself a conservative or a liberal, a Republican or a Democrat, at least you can get a pretty good idea of what he stands for. Without that hint, it’s a lot easier for the status quo crowd to remain in place, holding all the cards.
Copyright 2017 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international trade compliance trainer, transportation manager, actor and writer. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
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