Metro-East News

Historic change: Madison County turns to GOP leadership

Madison County Board Chairman-elect Kurt Prenzler
Madison County Board Chairman-elect Kurt Prenzler

Madison County faces its next term with a Republican chairman and a majority-Republican County Board for the first time, perhaps, since the Great Depression.

Election results are final but unofficial, certifying that Republican Treasurer Kurt Prenzler narrowly defeated 14-year County Board chairman Alan Dunstan by 506 votes.

Dunstan conceded Tuesday night and wished Prenzler and the new Republican majority on the County Board the best of luck.

“I’m sorry to lose, but I’ve lost before and I’ll hold my head up high,” Dunstan said. “When I hand over the keys, the county is in the best financial shape of any county in the state of Illinois. I’m proud of the work I’ve done for the last 14 years; I enjoyed it and thought I did a good job. But the bottom line is, I didn’t get enough votes to keep it.”

Prenzler said the GOP was focused on the referendum to reduce Madison County’s property tax rate, which succeeded by a nearly four-to-one margin.

“The focus of our campaign was ethics and taxes,” Prenzler said. “Madison County has been a Democrat-machine county, and one of the problems with that has been a culture where bad things go on and people are afraid to speak up. My goal is to encourage the County Board to be a deliberative body. ... It’s my goal to work together toward those issues of better ethics and being careful with the taxpayers’ money.”

Prenzler, 60, was first elected treasurer in 2010, and has not held other elected office.

Among the County Board, incumbent Democrats Kelly Tracy, Bill Robertson and Joe Semanisin lost their seats to Republican challengers. Incumbent Democrats Liz Dalton, Ann Gorman and Jack Minner defeated their challengers. In six other races where there was no incumbent running, five were won by Republicans, one by a Democrat.

That changed the County Board from long-time Democratic control to a slim Republican majority: from 18 Democrats and 10 Republicans to 15 Republicans and 13 Democrats, with one independent.

Chris Slusser, chairman of the Madison County Republican Party, said changing the balance on the County Board was his primary focus a chairman. While no one is quite sure, he said the best recollections of older people are that Republicans last held the majority prior to the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. “When Roosevelt won, the Democrats took over, and they never gave it up,” Slusser said.

As far as strategy went, Slusser said they focused on districts that were strongly Republican but represented by Democrats, and recruited strong candidates who he said were seeking public service, not a political career.

“We didn’t want names on the ballot just to have names there,” Slusser said. “We wanted legitimate candidates willing to work hard who had business backgrounds as professionals.”

Slusser attributed the success of their strategy to shoe leather and “the Trump factor.” He estimated that each of the winning Republican candidates knocked on at least 2,000 doors. “I knew that once the voters met these folks in person, they’d fall in love with them and support them to represent them,” he said.

But the “Trump factor” was huge in Madison County, Slusser said. Slusser himself won a seat on the County Board, in what he describes as a “union-Democrat” district.

“I was amazed that people on my voter list as hard-line Democrats had Trump signs in their yards,” Slusser said. “They were hardworking blue-collar folks who felt they’d been left out … they felt Donald Trump was speaking their language.”

Madison County Democratic Chairman Mark Von Nida could not immediately be reached for comment.

Prenzler said he sees his new position as working for all the parties, while his time as a treasurer and sole Republican in countywide office was more partisan.

“My goal is to work with all County Board members regardless of their party,” Prenzler said. “When you run for office, not everyone votes for you. ... My commitment is to be fair and represent everyone.”

Slusser agreed.

“Prenzler and Dunstan were kind of at each other’s throats for the last six years,” he said. “It’s time to turn the page and move forward. Let’s get back to doing the people’s business; we have to work together.”

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald