My Second Attempt at County Board in 2018

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At the time I chose to run for county board in the summer of 2011, my only political experience was as an appointed precinct committeeman for my county Democratic Party two months earlier and showing up at a couple of Progressive Democrats of America meetings.  

Unlike my very first time running for local office, which I outlined here, my 2018 run for the very same seat was a whole different story. In 2012, I was an unknown commodity among the people and the local political sphere. That by the time 2018 came rolling around, my name was well known as an outsider who had no problems calling a spade a spade.  

Heck, a few members of the local Democratic Party had called me a communist like it was a slight, despite my proudly labeling myself a social democrat. I had been campaign manager for a grassroots Democrat in 2014, where we got next to no help. Oh, there were a few brave souls who helped every so often. Even then, they did so quietly.  

September of 2011 changed everything. On September 17th, more than just my birthday was going on that day. In Zuccatti Park in New York City, a small group of young people gathered to protest the worst excesses of Wall Street. Within ten days of that humble beginning, I was one of three people who helped start the local offshoot in my area of Rockford, IL.  

Whereas when the Tea Party started, I had gone to one of the early meetings but realized half way through the Tea Party appeared more about hating the black man with a funny name than of any real anger towards the corrupt and broken financial, banking, and housing systems. Occupy Wall Street changed everything for me. It gave me the focus I had been lacking. 

A year prior in 2009, my wife and I were forced to sell the home that we had bought less than three years earlier due to the housing crash caused by those greedy and reckless “too big to fail” banks which gave rise to OWS after the Tea Party became the national embarrassment it was. So, I had good reason to be upset about our broken corrupted banking system. 

I became a precinct committeeman to bring the kind of change spoken about by so many members of OWS, not to mention radio hosts like nationally syndicated Thom Hartmann, whose tag line “democracy is not a spectator sport, get up, get active. Tag, you’re it,” was something I never took very seriously until one day in early 2011. I called into his show for the very first time and that is when I realized what he was talking about. 

Sometime around September 2018 I checked the Illinois State Board of Elections (SBOE) website to see if my quarterly report was finally posted. Once done, I decided to look up my opponent’s name. As expected, he had several large donations from local wealthy sources, but one stuck out more than the others. It was a $1000 donation from a local Democrat who had run for mayor of Rockford, IL, two years earlier. 

A Democrat giving a $1000 donation to a Republican is unfortunately not uncommon. But this particular Republican was my opponent for the county board. So why would a Democrat, whose SBOE committee had not seen any action in nearly two years, suddenly show a $1000 donation? 

Well, let me tell you why … you see, here in Winnebago County, IL, back in 2017 there was a big local story pertaining to a stone quarry in Rockton, IL, and the potential for an asphalt plant being built within this quarry. The problem was this quarry sits atop the main water source for nearly 80,000 people, and, according to official government surveys only about twenty feet separated the bottom of the quarry from the top of the water table. 

My opponent was, at the time, an appointed member of the zoning board of appeals. He voted in favor for recommending this asphalt plant be built. The plan was voted down, but not before a local law firm went to bat for both the quarry and the business owners, hoping to have this asphalt plant be built. Water shed be damned! It was quite the fight around here. I made several allies at the time. Unfortunately, nearly every one of those allies lived in another county board district. For me, that did not matter. Taking a loud and proud stance against that asphalt plant was the right thing to do. I lost, but I lost doing the right thing rather than selling out. 

It makes more sense when I mention that my opponent happens to own a local construction company – a company that would have almost certainly gained a contract pertaining to the building of this asphalt plant, had it been approved. My opponent was called out by several locals about his “yes” vote. He, of course, insisted his vote was unbiased and not influenced by potential future contracts. Maybe, maybe not. But once you discover where that $1000 donation came from, you begin to see differently. 

Remember the law firm I mentioned a moment ago? Turns out that $1000 came from this law firm. I know this because the SBOE quarterly report proves it beyond doubt. The Democrat who ran for mayor and whose committee was silent for nearly two years suddenly receives a $1000 donation from this law firm. Less than a week later, this Democrat’s committee gives a $1000 donation to my Republican opponent. Legal? Maybe. Unethical, you bet! My favorite part was being told by several other local Democrats, including the chair of the county Democratic Party that it was unfortunate, but that it was just politics. Ugh!  

It becomes clearer when you learn this Democrat is employed by the city of Rockford in its economic development department. How is that for good old-fashioned local corruption? This information was sent to local media, but they never got around to saying anything about it before, during, and even today, two years after the fact. If you thought it could not get worse, let us now talk about one of the local labor unions that endorsed my Republican opponent over me.  

My sights turned to my opponent and his construction company when, a day after I discovered everything outlined above, I received an anonymous tip about how my opponent and his company were being sued by a local union for non-payment of roughly $178,000 meant for several of that union’s pension plans. 

Recall that I am a strong and very vocal pro-union progressive. I wrote a column speaking to my pro-union stance at the time. For context, I helped create a union in the workplace in 2010, served as secretary and vice-president for the transportation department of my local, and was the only union member to show up when three other local unions went on strike at various times over the years. Suffice it to say, my union cred is strong. I have built quite a solid name locally on the premise since my first time running for office in 2012. Every union in Winnebago, including the one which stabbed me in the back in 2018, gave me donations of various sizes in my first run. Hell, the local postal letter carrier’s union endorsed me for county board. I was the very first local candidate for office to ever be endorsed by this local in the history of its nearly 100-year existence! 

My opponent, on the other hand, was and still is very anti-union. It shows in how he runs his construction company, not to mention many of his public statements at the time. So, it makes one wonder why a union, of which Democrats are typically seen as allies, would endorse a Republican over someone like me? 

Unfortunately, one need not look any further than the fact my 2018 Republican opponent owns a construction company, and the union in question is a laborers’ union. The very same laborers’ union that, at the time of their endorsement of him, was also actively suing him and his company for nonpayment of that approximately $178,000. You read that correctly. Even worse, as they were suing him for nonpayment to the dues-paying members’ pension plans, they gave him a $2500 donation for his then county board run against me.  

The Sunday prior to Election Day 2018 there was an event for the Democratic candidate running for state representative in my area. Unfortunately, this event was taking place at the union hall of the union that had endorsed and sued my Republican opponent. At the time I liked the guy running. He seemed like a good kid and I did not mind showing my support, even to the point of showing up at one of his events at that same union hall. 

I knew there was a risk of something going down because I was very vocal calling out the facts pertaining to this union, the local Democrat, and my Republican opponent. But I figured we were all adults, and if the union president had anything to say, he would be gracious enough to invite me into his office to talk about it, right?  

I was wrong. As he approached me, I stood up and offered my hand. I genuinely thought he was going to behave like a mature adult. However, I guess because of my willingness to call a spade a spade, he got right up into my face and basically threatened me with physical violence if I did not leave his hall then and there.  

So, I did the only thing left to me. I began to walk backwards towards the front door and began to yell out all the sordid details of what led to the president of that local getting in my face as he was in that moment. Based on the looks on the faces of the few dues- paying members of that local, I got a pretty good sense none of them knew why their president was angrily forcing the Democratic candidate for the county board out of the union hall. So, I did my best to supply them with those answers as fast and as loud as I could as I backed away towards the front door. 

Most of the other people in the room that day all decided to stab me in the back in the long run, as not even one of them said anything in my defense – not the candidate for state rep, nor the several local Democrats whom I had known for at least seven years as part of the local Democratic Party, nor even the union reps from other local unions in attendance. Of course, as word got around to other Democrats, I was made to be the bad guy and quickly lost support from other unions. 

Now I get it, not speaking up in that exact moment, especially the wannabe state rep since it was his event. But as the days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and now nearly two years later, not a single person who was there that day has so much as sent me a text or Facebook message. These were people who knew me, that I had coffee with, chatted and ate lunch with, and in some cases, knocked on doors and protested or rallied with for one cause or another.  

The following example is anecdotal, but I am more convinced than ever, the higher you go in union leadership, the more out of touch you become. About a year ago I ran into one of the union reps who witnessed the incident at the union hall. In the five or so minutes we spoke, that day did come up, but she never even hinted at an apology. It has been almost two full years since that day, and I lost every ounce of respect I had with so many people there that day, and subsequent days as the story of what happened got around. Through it all, the union hall which gave my Republican opponent donations despite suing him, the Democrats who had been there including the Democrat who filtered that $1000 payment, I was the one who ended up the bad guy. 

I genuinely wish there was video of the incident. Maybe there is, but to this day, I have not seen or heard of its existence. So obviously, this is my own recollection of the entire exchange with no way to verify it. I stopped attending the local Democratic Party monthly meetings in December 2018 and essentially abdicated my responsibilities as an elected precinct committeeman until my tenure finally came to an end in March 2020.  

After what went down that November day at that union hall and the election results, I lost by the way. I immediately turned my attention to doing all I could to get Bernie Sanders the nomination, and eventually spearheaded the effort to open an unofficial volunteer campaign office in Rockford with several local Berners. Soon after Bernie got screwed the second time, many of these same characters immediately began to voter shame me and the dozen or so Bernie volunteers into going all in for Joe. Some fell for it, but for me, it was not a hard decision to flat out refuse – especially since I had fought hard for a reputation as an unapologetic progressive lefty!  

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