Gizzi on Politics Oct. 12, 2009

Will Illinois GOPers Finally Get Tough Chairman?

What do the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (which was ousted earlier this year after nearly a half-century in power), the Socialist parties in Germany and France and the Republican Party of Illinois have in common? All are out of power and have gone through some rough times trying to rebuild themselves.  

With Illinois Republicans, however, the dim picture appears to be brightening. The nationally watched impeachment of Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier this year and the former governor’s controversial appointment of fellow Democrat Roland Burris to Barack Obama’s Senate seat has fueled GOP hopes for 2010. Six Republicans are vying for the nomination to take on acting Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and seven Republicans want to run for the Senate seat Burris has decided to relinquish. The best-known of these GOP Senate hopefuls is moderate Rep. Mark Kirk (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 67%) and the likely Democratic nominee is 33-year-old State Treasurer Alexis Giannoulias, a close ally of Obama and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.  

Along with nominating a strong statewide slate, Illinois GOPers insist that their party must rebuild its clearly weak grass-roots infrastructure. To many, a pivotal component in this rebuilding will be the election of swashbuckling conservative Jim Nalepa as state party chairman after the February primary, when that post is almost sure to be open.  

Last month, State Chairman Andy McKenna resigned the party helm to enter the Republican gubernatorial primary. Then, 18 of the 19 district GOP chairmen met and elected Republican National Committeeman Pat Brady to serve out the remainder of McKenna’s term which ends next February. Since Brady continues to hold his post as committeeman, it is widely assumed he will relinquish the chairmanship in four months.  

“And a lot of folks have talked to me about becoming chairman,” said Nalepa, a onetime U.S. Army Ranger and Hinsdale businessman who ran two close-but-losing races against then-Democratic Rep. Bill Lipinski in 1994 and ’96. “But if I put my business on hold and do it, the party has got to make some fundamental changes — like calling Mayor Daley’s political machine just what it is and standing for the conservative principles that have been in our national platform for years.”  

Nalepa believes that his party would not have suffered as much as it has in Illinois and nationally if 1), “It had stood “for smaller and limited government, greater individual freedom, and against regulations that thwart capital formation and entrepreneurship” and 2), “It is unafraid to “call Democrats the party of Big Brother and the party of corruption.”  

“Gen. George Patton, Not Caspar Milquetoast”

Two years ago, after a sabbatical from politics in which he focused on building his head-hunting business, Nalepa gave in to the encouragement of friends and ran for GOP state chairman. In speech after speech, the West Point graduate electrified audiences with his call to arms for the party. When addressing the 19 party leaders who elect the chairman, Nalepa said the party needed as its chairman “Gen. George Patton and not Caspar Milquetoast.”  

In that contest, the small group of party leaders chose McKenna over Nalepa. But, in losing, Nalepa nonetheless won many new friends who vowed to be with him the next time.  

One thing Nalepa has made clear he will do if he takes over the party is end the choosing of district chairmen by congressmen and districtwide party leaders. This system has existed since the late 1980s, when liberal Republican Gov. (1976-90) James Thompson and then-State Party Chairman Al Jourdan orchestrated an unusual change in the Illinois Election Code to permit only the Republicans and not the Illinois Democrats to use this secretive and incumbent-friendly process of choosing state party committee members.  

(For nearly 80 years before the Thompson-Jourdan rules change, under a law pushed by Republican Gov. Frank Lowden, members of both parties’ central committees had been elected directly by primaries among their registered voters. Democrats still elect their committees by party primaries.)  

“As chairman, I would choose ‘Option B’ and restore the primary,” Nalepa told me, “and I support [GOP State Sen.] Chris Lauzen’s Senate Bill 600, to overturn the present laws and put the choice of party leaders in the hands of the grassroots. Destiny is with the people, not the political machines.”  

Free State Free-for-All

Maryland Republicans have not exactly had an easy go of things. In 2002, Bob Ehrlich became the first Republican governor of the Free State since Spiro Agnew in 1966. But when he sought re-election in ’06, moderate-to-conservative Ehrlich was swept away by the national Democratic tide and lost by 53% to 47% to then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.  

In recent weeks, speculation has been high that Ehrlich (who now hosts a popular Baltimore radio talk show with wife Kendel) would seek a rematch with Democrat O’Malley. A just-completed Gonzales-Research poll showed O’Malley leading Ehrlich by 49% to 38%. (The same poll showed O’Malley defeating Republican National Chairman and former Maryland Lit. Gov. Michael Steele by 52% to 37%.)  

But last week, at three much-publicized appearances, Ehrlich still gave no clue as to what he will do in 2010. The former governor spoke at a Republican spaghetti dinner in Cockneyville, a Republican women’s cocktail party in Potomac and his own annual corn roast, which drew more than 1,000 cheering supporters.  

“If Maryland wants to go in my direction,” Ehrlich told the Washington Post, “I’m very happy to lead.”  

A Republican political consultant in Maryland who requested anonymity told me that Ehrlich “will wait until the races for governor this year in Virginia and New Jersey are over and then take a poll. He’ll decide by the end of the year.” Meanwhile, several other Republicans have begun exploring possible bids for the statehouse. Among them is Larry Hogan, Jr., who was Ehrlich’s appointments secretary and is the namesake son of a former conservative Republican House member (1968-74) from Maryland.  

Controversy still swirls around the state party. Davidsonsville veterinarian James Pelura, who won the state chairmanship after Ehrlich’s defeat, has come under fire for weak fund-raising and poor voter registration (Democrats have twice as many registered voters as GOP).

Conservative Pelura recently announced he would step down as chairman. A heated race to succeed him is now under way. The two leading contenders are Chris Cavey, first vice chairman of the state GOP and Baltimore County party leader, and Audrey Scott, former Bowie mayor and secretary of planning under Ehrlich. Both are considered moderate GOPers. The November 13-14 state party convention will elect the new chairman.