Tom Kacich | A groundbreaking county election 50 years ago

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In many ways, an election that took place 50 years ago this week was one of the most consequential in Champaign County’s nearly 200-year existence.

A special election, required by a 1969 state law following up on the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” ruling, changed the way members of the county board were chosen. Before 1972, members of the old county board of supervisors oversaw county government. That meant each of the 30 township supervisors — plus assistant supervisors from Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul — made up a 50-member board.

The great majority were rural, conservative and Republican. Even a few of the 14 supervisors who identified as Democrats voted with the Republicans.

The entire board was male.

Following passage of the 1969 law, the old Champaign County Board of Supervisors decided that the new board would be made up of 27 members elected from nine districts.

Along with 50 other Illinois counties that elected their boards — the other counties chose them at caucuses — Champaign County voters would go to the polls on April 4.

Republicans, who had regularly won nearly all contested races in the county since the days of Abraham Lincoln (except for a brief flirtation with Democrats in the 1930s), feared not only an urban-dominated county board but possibly a Democratic one. That fear had been heightened a month earlier when, in the regular primary election, more county voters took Democratic ballots than Republican ones.

Over the previous 10 years, Urbana voters had shifted to the Democratic Party, re-arranging an 11-3 GOP advantage on the city council to a 7-7 tie. The passage a year earlier of the constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 was expected to accelerate the shift in Champaign-Urbana.

After the votes had been counted, Republicans still controlled the board, 16-11, although the real advantage was 18-9 because rural Democrats A. James Hannagan and Harold McCoy voted with the GOP.

But in the cities, Democrats had gone 6-for-6 in the county board districts in Urbana and 3-for-9 in Champaign. Gradually, they gained more traction in Champaign and finally took control of the county board 30 years later.

Another reason the 1972 election was seminal was it brought the election of three women — the first women elected to a county board in the county’s nearly 140-year history. The News-Gazette headline the following day identified them as “UI faculty wives.”

Laurel Prussing, 81, is the survivor of what became known as “the awesome threesome.”

“We all sat together at meetings — Jeanne-Marie Wyld, Amy Kummerow and I — we all sat in front and we were always participating and so they started calling us the awesome threesome,” recalled Prussing, who later became county auditor, state representative, mayor of Urbana and county treasurer.

The 1972 county board election sparked more women to run for public office. Soon, they were candidates for county board, school boards, city councils, countywide offices, the Legislature and Congress.

Fifty years later, half of the 22 members of the county board are women, as well as six of eight Urbana City Council members and three of nine Champaign City Council members. Four of the eight countywide elected officials are women.

“I think we were viewed as (trailblazers), but we just sorta thought that this is our job and we’re going to do it and get along with everyone,” Prussing recalled. “I even got to be the chairman of a subcommittee, which could never happen today, going across party lines like that. But because I had proposed something about animal control, I got to chair this little subcommittee.”

The new county board was a friendly, congenial group, she said.

“It wasn’t partisan then. Everyone was nice to each other. I think part of the reason was we could go out and have drinks after the meeting, and you can’t do that anymore” because of the state Open Meetings Act, she said.

Prussing, who before being elected was active only in a local recycling advocacy group, said her entry into politics was uninspired.

“I remember that I got started because Jim Anderson (also elected to the board in 1972) came to my house and said I should run for the county board,” she remembered. “Do you know what I said? ‘What’s the county board?’ I’ve always thought they should put that on my tombstone. That’s what launched me into politics.”

That county board election — the second of three in Champaign County within a 19-day period — also led indirectly to the implementation of election consolidation in Illinois in 1980. Voters complained of election fatigue after a March 21 primary election, the April 4 county board election and school board elections on Saturday, April 8. It took several years, but eventually, Illinois consolidated its elections so that all voting dates were limited and fell under the control of county clerks or other election authorities.

via The News-Gazette

April 4, 2022 at 08:27AM

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