|The Geezer gets an award at the Jefferson Dinner, 2008|
Counting backwards on my fingers and toes, as best as I can figure out, I responded to a tiny two line want ad in my local newspaper, the Northwest Herald, in the fall of 1988. The McHenry County Democratic Party Chair at the time, a lawyer named Richard Short was pleading for volunteers to assume one of the many open precinct committeeman slots in the party. I think I was the only fish he landed.
I had lived in isolation, aside from family, in Crystal Lake since moving from Chicago in ’85. I was working second shift as a school custodian and tending my three year old daughter during the mornings and early afternoon while my wife was at work. I knew practically no one. But I was an old activist and yearned to make some connection, to do something.
So I agreed to circulate my petitions for election as committeeman for Nunda Township, Precinct 3. I knocked on a few doors on my block until I had twenty signatures. In the spring primary of 1987 about twice that many people made it all the way down to the bottom of the Democratic ballot and elected me to a job I didn’t really understand.
It turned out that the tiny, battered Democratic Party, always a distant second in a rock ribbed Republican Party was undergoing a little upheaval. The Chairman who recruited me it turned out was really in cahoots with Republican boss Al Jourdan who needed at least a paper party to rally his troops against. Two guys were running to take his place, a long time party regular who was always the top vote getter in the county, running up huge numbers and even a majority year after year in his Wonder Lake precinct and a younger guy who was running as a liberal insurgent. Without ever having attended a party meeting I found both candidates in my living room wooing my 20 votes at the upcoming party convention. I picked a guy, and sure enough he squeaked in on the strength of my votes. Turned out to be a bad choice, but what did I know.
I have been a committeeman—we changed the name a few years ago and call the job precinct representative now—ever since. I was elected every time except on year when I got pneumonia and couldn’t get my nominating petitions signed. I was appointed to fill my own vacancy by the Party chair that year. Come this spring I will have served 26 years.
In that time I have seen the party grow and I’ve nurtured wounds in some bad years. I served in many ways, including both unofficial and official party flack and designated spinner. I was an insurgent reformer and a party loyalist by turns. I was the first committeeman to publicly support a young lawyer named Jack Franks in a contested primary for State Representative against the then Chair, Frank McClatchy—which I have sometimes regretted as Jack has become the most conservative Democrat in the House. I was Vice Chair and briefly took over the Chairmanship when Bob McGarry died. Later I was elected to two terms as party secretary.
I have run for office—and been trounced—three times. First for Crystal Lake City Council, then for County Board, and finally for Township Board. I organized special events, marched in innumerable parades, a pulled duty every year at the party booth at the County Fair. I have advised numerous campaigns and provided press and public relations services for free to half a dozen others. I even met young State Senator named Barak Obama and engaged in a long conversation with him in the dust at the State Fair. He wanted to run for the U.S. Senate. I was deeply impressed but disappointed that a black guy with a name like that had no chance to get elected state wide in Illinois. Shows you what I know.
Then back in 2030 having run out of more respectable and deserving options, the Party presented me with the Robert McGarry Award for Community Service at the annual Thomas Jefferson Dinner.
It’s been a good run. But the second senior Committeeman in McHenry County is calling it a day. At 63 years old I don’t have quite the spring in my step that I used to. But more important working two jobs, including overnight hours on the weekends has made it increasingly difficult to fully service and canvas my precinct. This past year for the first time I failed to complete doing at least a literature drop before the connection. I only ever got to the few blocks nearest my house. Part of me thinks that if I had worked the whole precinct and done a better canvas that I might have gotten enough votes to get my friend Kathy Bergan-Schmidt re-elected.
I will leave the precinct in good hands. Top local activist John Darger lives in the precinct and has coveted the job for years. He even challenged me twice in almost unheard of contested elections for the job. He will do a good job.
Mind you, I am not leaving the Party altogether. I will anoint myself a wise elder statesman and annoy everyone with my pompous observations at regular meetings. I plan to still make most of them, but if I can’t get a ride I won’t feel compelled to hike three miles up Rt. 14 in the snow just to make a meeting at McHenry County College.
I would be pleased if the party could occasionally find some use for whatever skills I have and my long institutional memory.
Some of the time that I have to the Party will be channeled into my work as Social Justice Chair of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, writing and blogging, and a little freelance rabble rousing and hell raising.
I’m not ready for the pasture just yet.