Political Rewind: Activists Challenge GOP Status Quo in Illinois, State Fights FEMA for Tornado Relief
It's always good to be caught up on state politics. Here's an easy guide to what happened this week.
Editor's Note: This article was created by aggregating news articles from Illinois Statehouse News that were written by various Illinois Statehouse News reporters.
SPRINGFIELD — Amanda Alvey and other residents in Harrisburg need financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which denied five southern Illinois communities federal disaster assistance.
Harrisburg was hit especially hard by a Feb. 29 line of storms that produced a 170-mph tornado. Alvey’s house had only light damage, but Alvey’s cousin and her uncle lost their houses to the tornado.
“Everything they ever owned is now gone,” she said, referring to family and community members. “We went through the debris the other day, just pulling out anything we could find. Even if something was broken, both wanted it for the memories.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, denied residents of Gallatin, Randolph, Saline, Union and Williams counties federal assistance over the weekend, but Gov. Pat Quinn announced he would appeal the denial.
“FEMA underestimated the impact this deadly tornado had on small towns … we have already begun work on our appeal of this decision in order to secure federal assistance,” Quinn said in a statement Monday.
Illinois’ initial application for assistance estimated $3.3 million in disaster relief, based on the costs of temporary housing, building repairs, home reconstruction and other needs. That amount could change as more inspections are carried out. This relief allows people to apply directly to FEMA for monetary disaster aid.
Quinn's office is drafting the appeal letter. The state has 30 days to gather any new information or reassess damage before submitting an appeal with updated assessments.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg said he doesn’t understand why the counties were denied relief.
“FEMA’s job is supposed to protect and serve, and we are waiting to see them help us,” he said.
Greg said that if the appeal falls through, storm victims will continue relying heavily on donations from the Red Cross and other organizations. He also said Harrisburg is a "tight-knit community where residents will help one another," by providing housing or other needs.
Harrisburg was the hardest hit community in Saline County. As a whole, 330 houses were damaged, and nearly 100 houses were destroyed.
FEMA officials denied the state’s original application for disaster relief: “(T)he damage was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the State, affected local governments, and voluntary agencies.”
However, FEMA declared communities in Indiana and Kentucky disaster areas after the same line of storms that hit Illinois destroyed communities in those states. Kentucky and Indiana suffered a greater loss of life, 13 deaths and 23 deaths respectively; Illinois saw six people die.
Patti Thompson, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said state and local governments do not have the money to assist uninsured homeowners and repair damaged infrastructure and other storm damage.
“What FEMA described in the letter is just not the case in Illinois,” Thompson said. “You have so many people whose homes are totally gone, or substantially damaged.”
This isn’t the first time Illinois officials will file an appeal against FEMA. The last appeal Illinois was in spring of 2008, when towns in east central Illinois experienced flash floods, leaving rural communities like Watseka, underwater for days. The initial request for aid was denied, but after floodwaters receded, FEMA officials re-examined the damage and relief was granted.
If the state wins the appeal, homeowners will have the option to fill out loan and grant forms. From there, FEMA officials will determine grant amounts based on the homeowners' needs, such as how much damage was done, and how much their insurance will cover.
Even if FEMA doesn’t declare the counties a disaster area, storm victims will get the opportunity to apply for low-interest loans through the Small Business Association, or SBA, to help rebuild their homes.
Gregg estimates the cost of damage in Harrisburg to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
Illinois’ initial requests for aid estimated residents would need $5 million in low-interest loans from the SBA, in addition to the $3.3 million in grants from FEMA.
— Andrew Thomason
CHICAGO — Illinois Republican activists are pushing party faithful to challenge the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on Cook County, and its largest city, Chicago.
That will affect not only local political offices, but also the legislators that Chicagoland sends to the state Capitol in Springfield.
Unless at least some Republican lawmakers are elected from the area, the state Legislature in the Land of Lincoln is unlikely to be majority Republican any time soon. Democrats hold a 35 to 24 majority in the Illinois Senate.
The Illinois House also has a majority of Democrats, with 64 Democrats and 54 Republicans. The March 20 primary election will nominate GOP challengers to the dominant Democrats in the General Assembly.
A new Republican activist, Deb Gordils, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican ancestry, has been working on a year-long campaign to advance Republican candidates and to attract more Latinos to the conservative party.
“The Latino population in Chicago is still struggling,” she said. “When you talk to Latinos, they’re conservative. I say to them, ‘If you vote your values, you vote Republican.’ They understand that.”
Gordils is starting at the local level to bust the stranglehold that Democrats have on the county.
Cook County has a unique system in Illinois in which each party’s ward committeemen choose the candidates for the Legislature. All 50 ward committeemen are up for election March 20.
“The position is similar to that of a Precinct Committeeman in counties outside Cook County. The only substantive difference is that many more voters are represented in a ward, which includes multiple precincts,” RepublicanNewsWatch.com reported. “Running for Ward Committeeman in Chicago is relatively easy. In over half the wards, candidates for Republican Ward Committeeman need the valid signatures of fewer than 30 registered voters in the ward to get on the ballot.”
Gordils is challenging committed Republicans to run for ward committee positions — posts she said are held by Democrats posing as Republicans. It's a discovery she said she made after just five of the 50 GOP ward committee members returned her calls for help organizing Latino voters for the party.
She said she wondered why Democrats would want the nonpaying jobs of the GOP committee members. But the answer is simple. It gives committeemen the power to ensure that Democratic candidates for the Legislature have weak Republican opponents, or no opponent at all.
The ward committeemen also are responsible for the Republican half of the election judges. So if half the election judges are Democrats, and of the other half many are Democrats posing as Republicans, then the Democrats control the election.
“The whole thing is a farce,” Gordils said. “What you have (are) imposters posing as Republicans. But if we don’t succeed in building a two-party system in Chicago, you cannot win in the state of Illinois.”
In some wards, she said, fewer than 50 people elect a local ward committeeman. So it’s easy for Democratic operatives to find enough Democratic voters, and “tell them to vote for the GOP candidate — who’s really a Democrat,” she said.
“It’s a convenient way to manipulate the vote — with no evidence. This is nothing but a hostile takeover by the Democratic Party in Cook County,” Gordils said.
She said that when she started talking about Democrats posing as Republicans, “about 11 of the 50 ward committeemen resigned."
And at least one third of them didn’t file papers for re-election. They didn’t want the mud to hit them,” Gordils said.
Joe Morris, an attorney considered “Mr. Conservative” in Illinois and throughout the Midwest, is president of the Lincoln Legal Foundation.
“There are certainly a handful of ward committeemen who are flying a false flag,” he said. “But the bigger problem is that they’re completely ineffectual. We have only a handful, perhaps a dozen that have organizations and work on behalf of the party’s candidates.”
He said that, “although there’s always the problem of false flag” ward committeemen, “the problems run deep. That includes state party leaders ignoring the importance of Cook County.”
He pointed out that although Republicans are the minority party in Cook County, there are more untapped GOP votes there than in any other county in Illinois.
“Illinois does not require registered voters to pick a party any more, so this number is hard to ascertain,”ChicagoNow.com reported in a recent post. “We know that in 2010, the year of the (Republican leaning) Tea Party revolt, Chicagoans voted 77 percent to 19 percent for Democrat Alexi Giannoulias over Republican Mark Kirk in the U.S. Senate race and 75 percent to 17 percent for Democrat Pat Quinn over Republican Bill Brady for governor.”
So Chicago is at least three-fourths Democratic, according to those numbers.
By contrast, statewide in that 2010 election, the gubernatorial race was a virtual tie, with 47 percent going to Quinn, the Democratic winner, and 46 percent to the Republican Brady. And the race for the U.S. Senate also was close, with Republican Kirk winning with 48 percent and Democrat Giannoulias garnering 46 percent.
The Republican nominee for president also might have a chance of winning the state for the first time since 1988. That’s unlikely to happen this November no matter what, because President Barack Obama is from Chicago and is a favorite son. But 2016 is only four years away. Republicans once dominated the presidential elections in the Prairie State, winning there five straight elections from 1968 to 1988. But they haven’t won since.
Similar changes in voting patterns also might give the Republicans a stronger presence in the General Assembly. Democrats hold a 35-24 majority in the state Senate and a 64- 54 majority in the state House of Representatives. A shift of five votes in the Senate and six in the House would give the GOP majorities in both houses.
Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady did not return calls seeking comment.
Illinois, of course, also is the state where two recent governors went to prison on corruption charges. Democrat Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office in 2009. In 2011, he was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison on charges including wire fraud and solicitation of bribery. His prison sentence On Wednesday, he began serving his sentence. His predecessor, Republican George Ryan, has been in prison since 2007 following his conviction on federal corruption charges.
— John Seiler