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What will GOP changes on Lake County board mean in 2010?
By Russell Lissau | Daily Herald Staff

Lake County Board member Pam Newton

 

Lake County Board member Michael Talbett

 

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Published: 6/7/2009 12:01 AM

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In less than a month, the Lake County Board's Republican majority has learned it will lose two of its veteran members.

Back in mid-May, board member Pam Newton was hired as the chief operating office of Hawthorn Woods, one of the communities she's represented. Last Tuesday, Kildeer officials hired county board member Michael Talbett to be the town's village administrator.

Neither Newton, of Long Grove, nor Talbett, of Lake Zurich, has quit the county board yet. They must do so before starting their new jobs.

It'll be up to the county board to appoint successors for Newton and Talbett, both of whom were up for re-election in 2010. By law, Republicans must fill both posts, so the GOP's slim, 13-10 majority over the Democrats will stand fast.

Dan Venturi, leader of Lake County's Republican organization, is relieved Newton and Talbett are resigning now rather than opting not to seek re-election in 2010. This way, their appointed successors will be able to get some experience and run as incumbents against Democratic opponents next year, Venturi said, whereas the alternative would have had the GOP and Democrats on even ground as they chased after an open seat.

"Even though we're sad to lose Pam and Michael, this is probably the best way to transition," Venturi said.

Nine seats will be up for grabs in 2010. Democrats need to win only two now held by Republicans to seize control of the panel for the first time in history.

Party leaders like their chances.

"I think there's a very good possibility (of gaining the majority)," said state Sen. Terry Link, chairman of the county's Democratic Party. "We're looking at every race, and we're trying to put the best possible candidate we can in every one of those races."

Four Democrats - Melinda Bush of Grayslake, Pat Carey of Grayslake, Diane Hewitt of Waukegan and Terry Wilke of Round Lake Beach - seized county board seats previously held by Republicans in the November 2008 election. That dramatically narrowed the GOP's long-standing majority, which had been 17-6.

"No one would've ever thought we could win four seats last time," said Link, of Waukegan. "People want to see drastic changes."

Of the nine county posts up for election in 2010, two are in strongly Democratic districts and likely would remain in Democratic hands. The seven others are in historically Republican districts.

But two of those Republican seats now are occupied by Talbett and Newton.

Talbett, a commissioner since 2000, plans to resign after the board's June 16 meeting. Newton, a board member since 1992, is scheduled to start her new job June 15 but has not said when she will quit her county post.

For Talbett, an attorney by trade, the new job in Kildeer was a quick development that arose only after Newton was hired for a similar post in Hawthorn Woods.

"A couple weeks ago, this was not on my radar screen," he said.

Newton's switch to nonelected government service had been in the works longer. A preschool director who also served with the National Association of Counties, she received a master's degree in organizational leadership in order to make such a transition.

Newton has said she will resign from the school and the national association. Likewise, Talbett will step away from his law practice to focus on the village.

The GOP's Venturi is glad the eventual county board replacements for Talbett and Newton will have time to gain experience and build reputations before the February 2010 primary and the general election that November.

If they work hard and represent their constituents well, Venturi said, they'll have an advantage in the ballot booth.

"I'm pretty confident we'll be able to hang onto those seats," he said.

Across the aisle, Democrats would rather their candidates face political appointees who are relative newcomers than Talbett or Newton, both of whom performed strongly on Election Day through the years.

"Beating (Talbett or Newton) would be very challenging for the best of candidates, so it does create possibilities," Carey said. "Those seats will be more attainable for a Democratic challenger now."

Venturi credited the Democrats' upset victories on the board last year to the successful presidential campaign of Barack Obama and the coattail movement that saw Democratic upsets at many levels of government.

The pro-Obama energy and Democratic turnout that shaped so many elections in 2008 won't be a factor in 2010, Venturi said.

"I think it'll be a much better cycle for the Republicans," he said.

Even so, Venturi knows the GOP is close to losing its grip on the county board, which doubles as the Lake County Forest Preserve District board.

The appointees who replace Newton and Talbett will "have to work very hard" to retain those seats in 2010, he said.

"It's obviously something we're concerned about," said Venturi, who will work with other Republicans to find candidates for the two seats. "I plan to spend my summer working on it."

County board Chairwoman Suzi Schmidt, who's responsible for recommending appointees to fill vacancies on the board, isn't as worried about the political implications of the future appointments.

She actually has three on her plate: In addition to the two Republicans, Schmidt has to recommend a Democrat to replace Bob Sabonjian, who quit last month to be mayor of Waukegan.

"I'm living in today. I want to keep today's county board working," said Schmidt, a Lake Villa Republican who last month announced her intent to run for the state Senate next year. "I'm not thinking beyond that."