Despite big wins by Democratic candidates across the suburbs, control of the Lake County Board will remain in Republican hands.
Because of redistricting and a remapping process that shrunk the board from 23 to 21 members, every seat was up for election last week. When the ballots were counted, 13 Republicans and eight Democrats were victorious.
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Thirteen Republicans and 10 Democrats now serve on the panel, which doubles as the Lake County Forest Preserve District board. It's the closest the partisan divide has ever been.
The new board makeup gives the GOP a bit more breathing room. Democrats would need to pick up three additional seats to seize majority control of the panel; if the board had stayed with 23 members, the Democrats only needed a two-seat gain to take over.
Not surprisingly, Republican commissioners insist their majority is critical to the county's healthy operation. But they also know it would be foolish to pretend the Democrats don't exist.
"I think the fact that eight Democrats are on the board needs to be recognized, and they need to be involved in the process," Gurnee Republican Steve Carlson said.
The Democrats have always been in the minority on the county board, but strict party-line votes are rare. When members are divided on local issues such as development, land conservation or budget matters, it's typically because of personal philosophy, not political affiliation.
Ten years ago, Republicans outnumbered Democrats on the board 17-6. That margin held in 2004 and 2006 but narrowed to 13-10 in 2008 and stayed there after the 2010 election.
The board's decision in June 2011 to reduce its membership certainly helped the GOP. No Republicans found themselves doubled up when the boundaries changed, while four Democrats were put in that uncomfortable position.
In those cases, some commissioners opted to step down rather than run against their peers in primary contests.
One of those doubled-up Democrats was Grayslake's Melinda Bush, who opted to run for the state Senate instead of the county board. She won the 31st Senate seat last week.
But before entering that race, Bush tried to lead a Democratic charge against the proposed map, saying it unfairly targeted members of her party.
Her protest fell flat. The changes passed with a bipartisan 16-7 vote.
Now that the election is done, Bush said the remapping resulted in exactly what she predicted last year: fewer Democrats on the board.
"It worked out the way we expected," she said.
Vernon Hills Republican Aaron Lawlor was the vice chairman of the committee that developed the new map. He makes no apologies for the group's product.
"The redistricting process at the federal, state and county levels is a partisan one -- but it's the system we have," Lawlor said. "This is the reality we're working with."
Following tradition, the county commissioners will be sworn in and take office in early December. They'll choose leaders of both panels at the same meeting.
With the GOP in control, those posts surely will go to Republicans again.
Democrats were shut out of the top four posts -- chairman and vice chairman of the county board, and president and vice president of the forest board -- in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2010.
The lone exception came in 2006, when Waukegan Democrat Angelo Kyle was named vice president of the forest board for a single, 2-year term.
Lawlor believes the second-in-command seats aren't as important or as influential as the boards' committee leadership posts -- and several of those have been held by Democrats in recent years.
"They have a strong opportunity not only to influence the direction of the committee but also to mentor members on the value of the various programs that come through it," Lawlor said.
Carlson acknowledged the vice chair and vice president posts are largely symbolic. When asked if it's time to give one of those jobs to a Democrat, he chose his words carefully.
"There is a precedent," he said. "I don't see a harm in it."