Selle: Lightning strikes as Lake County Democrats make another inroad

I checked the mighty oaks in the backyard for lightning strikes. I drove to a farm near Wadsworth to a see if any pigs were flying. And while we tied a record last week for the number of sub-freezing days in a row (12), this isn’t exactly hell.

Despite the first Democrat, Jay Ukena, holding the title of chief judge of the Lake County Circuit Court, all still seems right in our corner of the state.

In this once rock-solid Republican county, GOPsters forewarned us of the consequences of Democrats holding county offices: Lightning would strike, pigs would fly and hell, indeed, would freeze over.

Such was the litany since the days of President Lincoln that county Republicans said would happen if we elected Democrats.

That political balloon burst in 1970 when Grace Mary Stern of Highland Park was one of the first Democrats elected to a countywide office since the Roosevelt-Truman era. After her election as county clerk, a few years later Democrats had occupied the sheriff’s spot and the office of state’s attorney.

It was a trying time for Republicans, who eventually were awakened by Ronald Reagan’s call to action. They retook all three offices in the ’80s as Democrats have won and lost countywide offices during the intervening years.

Yet, Democrats toiled on in the vineyards of Lake County. They tended a burgeoning populace and convinced voters they weren’t ghouls ready to take their souls to perdition.

Hard work at the grassroots level has paid off over the years to the point Democrats moved west from their traditional shoreline strongholds to central, and then west Lake County. They continue to make inroads in legislative and County Board districts among Lake County voters, who once blindly voted Republican and were proud of it.

One of the architects of Democratic strategy, before he became a judge, was Ukena, who was profiled last week by Jim Newton on the front page of The News-Sun. Since his election to the bench a decade ago from the 1st Subcircuit, Ukena now has a two-year term as chief judge of the circuit, elected by one of the smallest of electorates, his fellow full judges.

It is something that would have been unheard of when Ukena, then a sole law practitioner, was the firebrand chairman of a struggling Lake County Democratic Party in the early to late 1980s. He followed that by being at the helm of the Waukegan Democratic Party into the mid-1990s.

While the county had a few Democratic judges in the past, the post of running the courts system was something considered only for Republican jurists, who were in the majority. This despite the knowledge there is neither a Republican or Democratic way to adjudicate the law.

As Ukena told Newton in a front-page story: “Political affiliation is irrelevant. Now it’s whether or not you can do the job.” The avid bicyclist, known for traversing the Des Plaines River bike trail on summer weekends, must have pedaled the right way since joining the bench.

He must have done something judicious to convince his fellow jurists he will continue the work of past chief judges in his first term at the helm of the county’s judiciary and not rock the boat. Or, his peers just decided it was time for a Democrat to have a shot at the top judicial post. Maybe even a second term is in the future after his initial spell in charge.

If so, who knows which Democrat will be the first to occupy the treasurer’s office or regional school superintendent post, both of which have remained in GOP control for decades.

Charles Selle is a former News-Sun reporter, political editor and editor.

Twitter: @sellenews

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