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Editorial: Time for a new face of the Republican Party in Winnebago County

May 6, 2014
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By Brandon Reid
Senior Assistant Editor

Media update for the week: saw on the news this week the offspring of a donkey and a zebra, black and white legs, rest all donkey. Not sure why this is news: now if we can teach him to read a teleprompter, we could have two living creatures the media will fawn over that is part white, part black and all a**!”

Just a few years after Republican state Sen. Dave Syverson of Rockford made a Facebook post that did not leave everyone laughing, another prominent local Republican has gained attention — this time, national attention — for his use of a racially insensitive joke.

Winnebago County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Thompson used the above disparaging remark (in italics) about President Barack Obama (D) to conclude a weekly e-mail newsletter he sends to subscribers.

After the national website TalkingPointsMemo.com obtained a copy of Thompson’s newsletter, Thompson posted the following apology to the site:

I would like to offer my sincere apology to those who were offended, and I regret including this item in the newsletter. In the future, it most certainly won’t happen again.”

The problem is not simply that this offensive item was included in Thompson’s newsletter, but that he would find it humorous at all. His apology falls far short of showing true racial enlightenment.

The “joke” is offensive, period. Whether it is included in a newsletter or whispered quietly in Republican or social circles does not matter — it is wrong, and Thompson’s weak attempt at an apology simply does not cut it.

Thompson, in classic politico fashion, clearly appears to be more regretful that his comment was exposed than he is for even finding humor in the disparaging remark.

Not only was the newsletter exposed on the TalkingPointsMemo.com website, but it was also included in many other national outlets, including the Chicago Sun-Times and the Washington Post. Thank you for bringing more negative attention to Winnebago County and Rockford, Mr. Thompson.

Thompson’s use of the disparaging remark shows just how unprofessional, off task and disrespectful partisan political discourse has become in this country. The use of this ridiculous and failed attempt at humor is simply sophomoric. Can we all grow up now? And we wonder why nothing ever gets done in Washington, D.C.

Thompson’s use of this disparaging remark about President Obama shows poor judgment and an apparent lack of racial enlightenment. Moreover, it is just one more example of how dysfunctional and out of touch local leaders in the Republican Party have become.

July 5, 2011, our esteemed state senator, Syverson, made the following post to his Facebook page:

Father Daughter Talk … My daughter just walked into the room and said, ‘Dad, cancel my allowance, rent my room out, throw all my clothes out, take my TV, iPhone, iPod, and my laptop. Please take all of my jewelry. Then sell my car, take my house key. And then write me out of your will.’

Well, she didn’t put it quite like that……… she actually said.. ‘Dad this is my new boyfriend, Mohammed from Iran’.”

When asked to comment on the post, Syverson’s response in 2011 was: “If it really offended anyone, certainly I’m sorry for that. But it certainly was never meant to be anything but a joke. Anyone that is a father of a daughter knows and tells jokes about the potential boys that they may be dating.” (Syverson’s daughter was recently engaged at the time.)

Syverson continued: “If you listen to the comedy channel or any of those late-night shows, you have Muslim comedians who are on there making comments that are really questionable. Their response is they do it because humor is a great way to break down the barriers. So, people feel more comfortable about talking about issues.”

Asked at the time to name one such Muslim comedian, Syverson said: “Just Google any Muslim comedians. You can go to their websites and read about it and see those jokes. And again, I doubt they’re doing that to be attacking their own people. It’s just like when you have Irish comedians or Italian comedians telling jokes about their families.”

Syverson also added: “If that’s what people want to make sure is that everything is carefully worded and you don’t ever cross the line or joke with individuals from any other race, color or creed, I just don’t know how that makes for a better country.”

In 2012, state Rep. John Cabello, R-Machesney Park, drew regional headlines for comments he made regarding same-sex marriage. Cabello reportedly likened same-sex marriage to bestiality when he stated at a Rockford Tea Party meeting, “Does this now say that somebody can get married to their dog?”

In defense, Cabello said his comments were blown out of proportion. He said that because of his Catholic upbringing, he could not support same-sex marriage, and also noted that he was not serious about a law allowing humans to marry dogs.

Thompson in 2014, Cabello in 2012 and Syverson in 2011 are examples of how some local Republican Party leaders simply do not seem to “get it” when it comes to everyday American social values.

Beyond social values, the local Republican Party also seems to truly be a classic illustration of dysfunction.

For example, in the 2013 Rockford mayoral race, many local Republican leaders failed to get behind their own candidate, political newcomer Michael Kleen, after the party failed to recruit and field its own handpicked candidate.

Kleen, then 31 and a book publisher and author of several books about Illinois folklore who moved to Rockford from Des Plaines five years before running for mayor, raised a little more than $2,500 in his campaign. Much of that money he loaned to his own campaign. The result was Kleen finished third in the race with 18 percent of the vote, and Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) was re-elected with 44 percent and runner-up Democrat Jim Hughes claimed 38 percent.

Clearly, Republicans — many of whom voted for Kleen’s opponents — were more concerned about protecting the Good Ol’ Boys Club in the 2013 mayoral race than they were in supporting their own conservative values.

As The Rock River Times’ Editor and Publisher Frank Schier noted: “The Republican Party completely abandoned a true Republican candidate in Kleen because he was not one of the Good Ol’ Boys and was not lining the pockets of one of the Good Ol’ Boys. The Republicans totally flopped as a political party when they could have slated candidates — but they didn’t, because it was an agreed-upon exclusion in collusion with the Democrats. They make deals to trade out offices between one corrupt party system and another.”

More recently, in the 2014 Primary Election, multiple career Republicans switched ranks and ran as Democrats in their quest for the open Winnebago County sheriff seat. What a joke.

The most egregious party-switcher in that race was Randy Olson, a very well-known and long-time Republican who switched to run as a Democrat in the sheriff’s race. Olson was also at the center of a controversy in 2011 when the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD), of which he was then president of the board, purchased 18 acres of land from former sheriff Donald Gasparini for $216,500. The land was adjacent to the Four Lakes Forest Preserve near Pecatonica, Ill., and included three fishing ponds. The $216,500 price tag was set by private appraiser Harrison & Associates, Inc., of Woodstock, Ill. The same company appraised the land at $248,000 in 2004. Although the WCFPD purchased the land at a price set by a private appraiser, the deal led many to believe cronyism was involved, as Gasparini was longtime friends with Olson. A similar real estate controversy would arise with the Hawk’s Nest deal in downtown Rockford. More on that shortly.

In August 2012, Olson was stripped of the WCFPD president title after commissioners voted to remove him from the president’s chair. Olson had created a new public safety and risk management job without the board’s consent and had handpicked Theresa Rawaillot, a 13-year Roscoe police veteran and his fellow Law Enforcement Aviation Coalition member, to fill the position.

Multiple candidates who have attempted to run as Republicans have also shared with this newspaper their frustration in gaining their party’s support. Some have been reprimanded for running on the party ticket without prior party approval while others have simply not received any support from their party in their races.

In addition to the dysfunction, there is the controversy. Along with the controversy caused by Thompson’s comments, Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) has been under fire for his involvement in the county’s attempted purchase of the Hawk’s Nest restaurant in downtown Rockford.

As noted by Winnebago County Board member Steve Schultz (R-3) in his April 16-22, 2014, guest column, “Nothing done on the Hawk’s Nest deal … only in Winnebago County”:

Hawk’s Nest was a downtown restaurant owned by Church and Chestnut Development LLC that, in turn, was owned by three prominent members of our community — former Winnebago County Sheriff Don ‘Donny’ Gasparini, construction company owner Carl Scandroli, and developer and attorney Paul Nicolosi — all have strong political ties to Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R).

The chairman assigned one of his employees, former Rockford mayoral candidate and Winnebago County Development Director Jim Hughes (now retired), to work on a project that would result in the purchase of the Hawk’s Nest property (which had closed down as a restaurant and was vacant) and to convert it into a parking lot on the southeast corner of Church and Chestnut streets.

Instead of obtaining a fair-market value appraisal (what someone would be willing to pay for this property, as is, based on current comparative properties that have sold and are on the market), Hughes gave specific criteria to the appraiser based on how much income this property would provide to the owner if it were converted to a parking lot and the spaces provided a given amount of income per space per month.

The investment value appraisal, using the inputs provided by the county employee and approved by the chairman, came back at $750,000. The additional costs to tear down the restaurant and construct a parking lot were estimated at $200,000. The total cost to purchase and convert the property to a parking lot was $950,000, using this unique and unusual approach to valuing the property.

Here are the flying chicken feathers: the assessed value of this property was $175,000. A fair-market value appraisal was never obtained, so we do not know for sure what value an appraiser would have placed on the property (a closed restaurant/bar) if that appraisal was ever done. The way this transaction was handled ensured a maximum value to the property/development owners — known donors to the Hughes and Christiansen campaigns, as well as the Winnebago County Republican Central Committee. I know my party has better standards, and I’m proud to be a Republican,” Schultz concluded.

Thankfully, the local Republican Party still has some bold leaders, such as Schultz, who are willing to stand up for truth, honesty and responsible leadership. Now, if the party can only find more profiles in courage grounded in modern social values to help lead it to a new, brighter future, the local political landscape could become more competitive, fruitful and responsive.

From the May 7-13, 2014, issue

2 Comments

  1. Jim Phelps

    May 6, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    Too bad Michael isn’t here to hear the accolades from the weekly now that he is busy defending us “from enemies foreign and domestic.”. Something good out of what was/is rotten in politics for Rockford and Winnebago County. HUA!

  2. Paul Gorski

    May 7, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    I have met Brandon, but I know him largely through his editorials and emails we have shared. I do not believe this article was easy for Brandon to write. I will not take this opportunity to jump in and throw another jab at the local Republican Party, because I know many people are disappointed with the Democratic Party too. It hurts when you invest yourself in a group’s goals and the group lets you down.

    I will say that there are people in both parties who are very nice people and they mean well, but that is not enough. You need people with backbones. You need leaders that will stand up to those people in your party, your opposition party and the public at large, who denigrate individuals or cultures and embarrass our community as a whole through these actions.

    We need motivated leaders. Rock River Times staff members are motivated people. I don’t know what motivates them sometimes, but it is enough for me to know as journalists, they say what they mean, and mean what they say. (I’m not patting myself on the back; I’m not staff.) I want leaders that work as hard as Rock River Times staff does to do the research, to get the facts, and share it with the public. Perhaps while doing real research our leaders will do a little soul searching and not make bone-headed jokes or choose to take short cuts on land deals.

    Brandon asks for new leadership for one group. Perhaps that is not enough. Maybe as a community we have to ask more from all of our leaders so they all step up a bit, re-evaluate their views, values, and bring them in line with the goals of the community. If our leaders can evolve, perhaps the region can too.

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