Do you have to sign a 'loyalty oath' to run for office in St. Clair County?

News-DemocratJanuary 13, 2014 

AP GRAPHIC

A majority of candidates seeking public office in St. Clair County have signed a "loyalty oath" declaring they are not communists or will not attempt to overthrow the government.

A federal court ruling more than 40 years ago declared such oaths unconstitutional, but state law considers the signing of the oaths "optional" when they file petitions seeking elected office.

A majority of the 28 candidates seeking posts in St. Clair County government have signed the oath ahead of the March 18 primary. Only three of those candidates competing for separate seats on the St. Clair County Board did not include the oath in their petition -- current St. Clair County Board member Steve Reeb and challengers Matt Hawkins and Rickie Thomas.

The oath requires candidates to swear they are not affiliated with a communist organization or seek "the overthrow of constitutional government by force." The oath became law in 1951 at the height of the Cold War and public fear of the Soviet Union, and subsequently communism.

Reeb, a Republican running unopposed to represent Swansea and part of Belleville, said he did not sign the oath because it was "superfluous."

"Sometimes a guy will sign, then turn around and challenge their opponent to sign it as well," Reeb said. "It doesn't mean a hill of beans. If you are going to run a good race, then run a good race."

Reeb said he believed the oath's lone remaining purpose was as a political tool to negatively define a candidate. Reeb said his reputation as a good public servant has already been determined.

"Over time it really doesn't mean a whole lot. The only thing it is good for is to be used against you later ... even if you do something marginal," Reeb said. "I don't know if I'm the greatest politician but I enjoy public service. I've found this doesn't help or hurt me one way or another."

St. Clair County Board member Dennis Renner, a Democrat, is running unopposed to retain his seat representing part of O'Fallon. Renner said he firmly believes all candidates should sign the oath, even though doing so is not required.

"I think everybody needs to think about their loyalty to the Constitution and the United States, and what they're running for," Renner said, noting he's always signed the oath during past candidacies as well. "There is no reason anybody should be against turning that in."

Hawkins, a Democrat running to represent East St. Louis, said he did not sign the oath for multiple reasons.

"I find it to be objectionable on the face and unconstitutional according to the law," Hawkins said. "It's just another piece of evidence the county leaders have no appreciation of the law."

Signing the oath opens up candidates to political liability in a county known for tossing candidates from the ballot for minor issues, Hawkins said. For example, an opponent could find an objection in the document and seek to have him thrown off the ballot for that.

"It's dicey stuff. People often ask, 'Why don't other people run?' It's because people are knocked off the ballot for the most inane, innocuous things," Hawkins said.

Thomas, a Democrat seeking to represent Washington Park, could not be reached for comment.

In 1972, the Communist Party and others filed suit against the Illinois State Electoral Board when communist candidates were not allowed on the ballot in Cook County because they refused to sign the loyalty oath.

Federal judges ruled in favor of the Communist Party finding the loyalty oath was unconstitutional because it was "vague and overbroad on its face" and ordered the communist candidates added to the ballot.

After that, the state legislature passed a law declaring the oath was optional, but candidates could still sign it.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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