CHICAGO – Illinois Republicans said the resignation Tuesday of the head of the state party is a chance to regroup, rebuild the base and address mistakes that led to an Election Day shellacking.
But strategists say it’s even a bit trickier: A replacement for Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady has to resolve inner-party squabbles at a time when the GOP is having identity issues and Democrats dominate them at the State Capitol and in the congressional delegation. And Brady’s resignation – not long after he angered party members for publicly supporting same-sex marriage – hit on exactly that nerve.
Debates on his future were the main topic at recent Republican State Central Committee meetings, including last month where protests erupted and police were dispatched.
“How can we reach out to new constituencies when this chronic infighting continues?” said Doug O’Brien, a Republican strategist and former aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk. “We’re still at a point when people can barely sit in a room together.”
Social conservatives called for Brady’s removal for months, largely because he supported gay marriage when a bill to legalize it was before the Legislature earlier this year. They also cited Republicans’ poor showing in November when Democrats won veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and picked up seats in Congress.
But efforts to boot him out failed due to concerns that getting rid of Brady would reflect poorly on a party that’s trying to appeal more to young voters, minorities and women by being more inclusive.
After four years on the job, Brady resigned Tuesday citing his wife’s battle with cancer. He said he was not bowing to pressure and that internal rifts worsened by 2012’s poor election results had not influenced his decision.
Brady did have ideas for his successor.
“I really think we need a different face than an old white guy,” he told The Associated Press. “I think it’s time for a woman.”
The party said in a written statement Tuesday that Carol Smith Donovan, the current vice chairman, would serve temporarily until the State Central Committee selects a replacement. Members were whittling the list of potentials and hoped to choose a replacement in the coming weeks.
While there has been much disagreement, Republicans statewide agreed the new leader has to be able to unite all parts of the political spectrum. The party’s focus has been the 2014 race for governor, which hasn’t been a Republican in a decade.
“We need someone who can bring different groups in the party together, someone who will appeal to both the conservative side and more liberal side,” said Sugar Grove state Sen. Jim Oberweis, a committee member who called for Brady’s removal. He and others didn’t like that Brady made his public stance without running it by the committee, among other things.
Among the candidates who put their names in for consideration is Jim Nalepa, who runs an executive recruitment firm. The West Point graduate ran twice unsuccessfully against former U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski in the mid-1990s.
“We’ve been leaderless, rudderless,” he said. “We need an effective and positive spokesman for who we are as Republicans.”
Committee members declined to name candidates. Those floated by other Republicans and political experts included Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider and DuPage County Republican Chairman Darlene Ruscitti.
Republican national committeemen Rich Williamson, a former chairman, said he wasn’t interested in the job.
“Hopefully we’ll seize an opportunity by picking up an energetic and able state chair, true to the party to broaden our base,” he said. Williamson said the list of about a dozen potentials included elected officials and was diverse racially and by gender. Committee member state Sen. Dave Syverson of Rockford said the formal interviews haven’t started. He said the next chairman should focus on fiscal problems, core issues to the party.
“The social issues are important but many of those issues are decided by the courts and federal government,” he said. “Right now the biggest issue facing people in Illinois is the economy and jobs and taxes and the migration of businesses leaving Illinois. Illinois is an embarrassment on the national scene, and we used to be one of the greatest states in the nation.”
Republicans also agreed that diversity among candidates would be good, but it wasn’t top priority.
“I’m for the best person who is an organizer, an orator and a fundraiser, and if that person turns out to be a woman that’s an extra added prize,” said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican weighing a run for governor. “I don’t think you ought to lock yourself in. You should look for the best overall candidate that’s out there as well as whether the person has the time to commit to it to do it right.”
In his resignation letter, Brady thanked all the GOP members of Illinois’ congressional delegation and singled out Kirk, who remained among his supporters. In a statement Tuesday Kirk said he respected and understood Brady’s decision.
“In stepping down, I want to express thanks to my wife, Julie, and our four children,” he wrote in the letter. “I am confident that no family of volunteers in this state has spent more time in victory centers and working for Republican candidates than my homegrown crew of volunteers.”