Selle: State Rep. Rita Mayfield isn’t taking phantom primary opponent for granted

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A sign outside a Lake County polling place on election day 2019.

A sign outside a Lake County polling place on election day 2019.(Dan Moran/News-Sun)

Voters in the 60th Illinois House District have found they have a new pen pal in the runup to next week’s primary elections. State Rep. Rita Mayfield has been filling up their mailboxes the past weeks with campaign literature.

The Waukegan Democrat is working hard to make sure she is nominated for another term in the General Assembly. She is the only incumbent Lake County legislator with primary opposition on March 17, which is one of the oddities of this election being conducted in our plague year.

So far, there is no Republican candidate for the seat in the November election, which means the primary is the election in the 60th District. Mayfield faced no primary or general election opposition two years ago.

Fellow Waukeganite Diana Burdette is seeking to upset the highly accessible incumbent in the Democrat primary. Mayfield has held the seat in the district — which includes Waukegan and North Chicago, along with parts of Beach Park, Gurnee and Park City — since being appointed in 2010 after Eddie Washington, the county’s first African American legislator, died while in office.

Burdette, who has lived in Waukegan since 2010 and is a member of Clean Power Lake County, decided to run for the office after getting involved in the drive to end cancer-causing ethylene oxide emissions from manufacturing plants in Waukegan and Gurnee. She has done little campaigning and even less spending in the contest.

Meanwhile, Mayfield, who served on the Waukegan Unit School District 60 board of education before being tapped for the legislative seat, has garnered newspaper endorsements. She also has the backing of area elected officials, state and county labor unions, Planned Parenthood, pro-choice Personal PAC and the Sierra Club, among others.

Overall, she is a formidable candidate, long known in the community and well-versed on the issues facing the district, county and state. It’s a bridge too far for political newcomer Burdette to overcome.

The incumbent has been sending out nearly a dozen of those slick and well-crafted mailers, because to become the next senator from the 30th Senate District, she needs to be re-elected to another two-year term. She would be a lock for the seat currently held by aging Terry Link of Indian Creek when he decides to retire, if she would want the post.

There also is the political adage of an incumbent not taking any opponent lightly. Additionally, there is the case years ago of the phantom candidate that still looms large in some Lake County political circles.

It was in the Democratic primary election of March 1976 when the rising political star of James Lumber was extinguished by a similar phantom opponent, James J. Cummings of Barrington.

Lumber, an original member of the College of Lake County board when it was constituted in 1967 and the mayor of Round Lake, was heavily favored in the party race.

Prize in the contest was being the Democrat standard-bearer in the general election to face off against incumbent Congressman Bob McClory of Lake Bluff in what was then the 13th Congressional District. Lumber was young and energetic; McClory a senior statesman elected to the U.S. House in 1972 who had been a state senator for 10 years prior.

Reporters and party folks couldn’t track down Cummings — he lived with his mother — to figure out where he stood on the issues. His campaign consisted of placing small “palm cards” proclaiming his pro-life stance — he turned out to be a one-issue candidate — on vehicle windshields during Sunday church services across the district.

The underdog campaign worked as Cummings edged out Lumber, who decided after the defeat to stick with his Grayslake law practice and leave his politics to local doings. Of course, Cummings went on to get creamed in the general election by McClory, who served another six years in Congress.

Which is one reason why Mayfield is spending freely from her substantial campaign-fund coffers. She doesn’t want to be taken out by this century’s phantom candidate.

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

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March 11, 2020 at 07:09PM

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