Republicans look to keep what few seats they have on the Cook County Board

There’s only one incumbent Republican on the 17-member board running for re-election. Will Democrats take full control?

Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison
Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison attends a board meeting of the Cook County Forrest Preserve at the County Building, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison
Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison attends a board meeting of the Cook County Forrest Preserve at the County Building, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Republicans look to keep what few seats they have on the Cook County Board

There’s only one incumbent Republican on the 17-member board running for re-election. Will Democrats take full control?

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Sean Morrison finds himself in a precarious position. He’s the lone incumbent Republican on the Cook County Board of Commissioners fighting to keep his seat in the November general election.

Illinois General Election graphic

This board might be under the radar for many taxpayers unless they wind up in the county jail, before a judge in the vast circuit court system or use its large public health system. But, commissioners oversee one of the biggest counties in the nation with a roughly $8 billion budget.

Democrats dominate. There are just two Republicans on the 17-member board: Morrison and Peter Silvestri, the former president of Elmwood Park who is not running for re-election after 28 years as a commissioner.

Morrison knows the board is vulnerable to losing a conservative voice, which he argues serves as a check on power.

“I’m very worried,” Morrison, 55, of southwest suburban Palos Park said recently from his commissioner’s office in nearby Orland Park. “There are at any given time, two and a half registered Democrats to a Republican. That’s just the reality of the math in our state and our county here.”

Losing a voice like Morrison’s could mean issues that residents like him care about may not get as much attention. Morrison said he thinks the county’s policies have gotten soft on crime, for example, and he is outspoken about how the county spends taxpayer money.

Morrison represents the 17th district, an area that stretches from Elk Grove Village near O’Hare International Airport south to the Will County border. It’s long been a Republican stronghold in a county that’s become increasingly blue. Only Republican commissioners have led the 17th District since voters started electing commissioners by district in 1994, according to the Cook County Clerk’s office.

In the last general election in 2018, there were four Republicans on the board who were battling to keep their jobs. Toni Preckwinkle, who is president of the Cook County Board and also chairwoman of the Cook County Democratic Party, targeted three out of four — and defeated two of them, including the head of the Illinois Republican Party. (She didn’t actively campaign against Silvestri. He’s a popular centrist Republican who defuses tension among commissioners with humor.)

Now Preckwinkle says she plans to topple Morrison, go after Silvestri’s seat and defend the two seats the Democrats flipped to blue four years ago. She could be buoyed by a remap that has changed commissioners’ district boundaries in an effort to strengthen the Democratic foothold of a few swing districts, including two in the northwest and northern suburbs.

In short, Preckwinkle sees an opportunity to have Democrats run the entire Cook County Board of Commissioners.

“How robust a campaign we can put together in the two seats that are presently held by Republicans I’m not sure,” Preckwinkle said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Democratic Party is currently polling to see how to dole out its resources, Preckwinkle said. The Party recently received a $500,000 infusion from Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s campaign. That far outpaces Morrison’s campaign coffers and the Cook County Republican Party’s fund that Morrison chairs, campaign contribution records show.

How Chicago’s suburbs have shifted Democratic

The increasingly blue political makeup of the Cook County Board can be traced to a shift in politics in the suburbs. In general, residents over the years have cast more votes for Democrats. In 2020, Democrat Joe Biden won the suburbs with 66% of the vote, compared to 32% for incumbent Republican President Donald Trump, according to election data with the county clerk’s office.

Suburban county residents “shattered” previous voting records, with Biden receiving the most votes of any candidate in the county’s history, the clerk’s office 2020 post-election report said. Biden won 26 townships while Trump took just four. (Three of those were on Morrison’s turf in the south suburbs).

Two decades earlier, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore won over suburban county voters, but with 56% of the vote compared to 41% for Republican George W. Bush.

Drill down further and four commissioners’ suburban districts have become purple, political jargon for a swing district where races can be particularly tight. These include the 14th and 15th Districts in the northwest and north suburbs, from Barrington Hills to Winnetka along Lake Michigan. Both districts were long led by Republican commissioners. One commissioner held his seat for 20 years; the other was the Illinois GOP chairman.

Then in 2018, both were ousted in a blue wave by Democratic commissioners Kevin Morrison and Scott Britton. (Both commissioners are running for re-election). These are the seats Preckwinkle is looking to protect.

Democratic candidates seized on anti-Trump sentiment to win election, and they’re continuing that same strategy this year, where abortion rights have dominated the political conversation in the wake of Roe v Wade being overturned. Meanwhile, demographic shifts have made the suburbs more diverse.

“It’s not necessarily people are waking up one day and saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a Democrat,” said Melissa Mouritsen, a political science professor at the College of DuPage. “There’s a strong sort of progressive shift in a lot of these communities, and that’s what’s driving the increase in suburban Democratic turnout.”

Four years ago, Morrison only beat his Democratic opponent by 1,377 votes, election data shows.

But this potential shift to more Democrats dominating the board raises questions about the impact of having one political party have so much power.

“One party rule is never a good thing,” Mouritsen said.

Still, she added some Democrats on the county board are more conservative than others. Some Democrats are more progressive than their peers. Some have even switched political parties.

Commissioner Frank Aguilar is a Democrat, but was a Republican state representative back in the early 2000s. Aguilar said he made the move because he disagrees with Republican views on immigration.

Silvestri, meanwhile, describes himself as a centrist.

“I’ve never felt, for lack of a better term, left out from a decision,” he added.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle appears on the Morning Shift with Jenn White on March 26, 2019. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Preckwinkle said it’s “extraordinarily unlikely” county commissioners could be accused of being rubber stamps.

“What’s Will Rogers’ joke? ‘I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat,’” Preckwinkle said. “Democrats are pretty diverse. We’ll work with the board that the people of Cook County elect.”

Last Republican standing?

Morrison said he doesn’t feel lonely on the board, either. He doesn’t always push back against Preckwinkle’s proposed policies or budgets. For instance, he joined the rest of commissioners in passing the new district boundaries.

But he has publicly criticized Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff Kim Foxx, who is now the Cook County State’s Attorney. He’s called for her to resign partly due to crime and how she handled the case of actor Jussie Smollett.

Morrison is in the thick of a political fight. While his district remained largely intact through the remapping process, he said he burned through resources to win the primary election in June against Elizabeth Doody Gorman, who used to be commissioner of the 17th District. He said he would cap how much he’ll personally contribute to his own campaign at around $125,000.

In just the first two weeks of September, the Cook County Democratic Party tapped roughly $527,000 in contributions, state campaign finance records show.

“She’s able to muster a tremendous amount of resources to run against us,” Morrison said of Preckwinkle. “The same tactics, the same pressure she utilized in 2018, she’s utilizing again.”

He said he’s hearing the footsteps of union members who are trying to drum up support for his Democratic opponent, former Cook County prosecutor Daniel Calandriello.

Morrison is also doing double duty as head of the Cook County GOP, which has slated several people to run against Democratic incumbents on the county board in addition to other countywide races. This strategy has been in play for at least a year and a half, Morrison said, fueled in part by the movement calling for defunding the police and the passage of the SAFE-T Act. Advocates say the latter is a state law that aims to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system and includes eliminating cash bail, though a judge can still detain someone. Still, this law has become a flashpoint among many conservatives and law enforcement agencies, claiming that Illinois citizens are now less safe.

“I think those two things have just enraged enough people where they’re like, we can no longer live in a state with one-party rule,” Morrison said.

On the county board, Morrison is looking to help Republicans reclaim the same purple districts in the north and northwest suburbs that Preckwinkle is trying to protect, in addition to protecting his own seat. He calls these races “winnable.”

So does Preckwinkle. She notes Morrison’s slim victory in 2018. And the Democratic commissioners who now control those north and northwest suburban districts that once were Republican strongholds – Kevin Morrison and Scott Britton – say they’re hustling to meet voters where they are, from farmers markets to their front doors, and are proud of the policies they’ve supported over their four-year terms.

Meanwhile, Morrison’s opponent, Calandriello, 37, spends most afternoons knocking on doors in his vast district. The former Orland Park trustee is a well-known face and name to some in the area. He grew up in Orland Park, and it’s where he’s raising his young family.

“I think this is what politics are all about, talking to people and going to them,” Calandriello said during a recent afternoon ringing one doorbell after another in his hometown. “You get a real feel for what’s going on. I meet voters. I’m hearing what they’re saying, and I’m telling them my message.”

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow her @kschorsch.