Three years after being appointed to fill a vacancy on the Lake County Board, Aaron Lawlor is settling in as the panel's newest chairman.
Predecessor David Stolman's personal knickknacks and mementos are gone from the small office atop the county government building in downtown Waukegan. In their place are items with Lawlor's personal stamp on them: a hard hat from a construction project; a photograph of Lawlor with then-U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, his former boss; and a drawing of the Illinois Capitol that was a gift from former state Sen. Kathy Parker, with whom he worked as an intern a decade ago.
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"It feels like my office," said Lawlor, 30, a Vernon Hills Republican. "I've always felt comfortable on the 10th floor, and I feel very comfortable in the office."
Lawlor was unanimously elected chairman by the board's 21 members earlier this month. It's a relatively quick ascension for Lawlor, a Vernon Hills Republican whose political service began in 2003 as a member of the Cook Memorial Public Library board.
Lawlor, who represents the 18th District on the board, fielded questions about his goals for the county, his political aspirations and related topics in an interview with the Daily Herald.
Q: You've been on the county board for about three years, a long way from the veterans who sit at the front of the boardroom during meetings. Why do you think you are qualified to be chairman?
A: I've been in public service for the past 10 years, working for then-Congressman Mark Kirk, serving as a board member and president of a historically controversial library district, and in several other roles. Each time, I've showed that I can manage through tough situations and find solutions. My colleagues have seen this firsthand. They have placed their confidence in me and know I'm ready to lead.
Q: Several Democrats were unhappy with you after a committee you helped lead eliminated two Democratic districts last year. Yet, all of the Democrats supported your bid for chairman. Were you concerned about the Democrats' support going to David or to their own candidate?
Q: Why not?
A: I have strong working relationships with members on both sides of the aisle. I think people recognize that redistricting is an inherently political process. However, it's the process we have. The election is over and now we have to govern.
Q: On my Facebook page, someone said he'd like to ask David "what a knife in the back feels like." Surely David felt hurt by your effort to oust him. Do you think that comment is fair? Do you intend to mend fences with David?
A: I don't think that comment was fair. I was open and transparent with David. When I felt that I had enough support to be chairman, I called him. David worked to reinvigorate Route 53, engaged our business community, and brought a smile to a number of tense situations. He deserves to continue serving Lake County in key roles and that is my goal. Over the past week, I appointed him to key roles on the rules committee, the public works and transportation committee, and as a member of the Lake County Partners board.
Q: Did you and David speak before the vote? Did you speak after? What was said?
A: I'm not going to get into personal conversations. I respect David and all of my colleagues.
Q: You're only 30. You were the youngest politician serving in Lake County when you joined the library board, and you're the youngest county board chairman in the area. Are you concerned political or community leaders may not take you seriously because of your age? Or is your age a strength?
A: I've never had a problem holding my own regardless of my age. We need leaders who bring diverse perspectives and work toward better outcomes for our county. I've built a reputation of being knowledgeable, hardworking and innovative. If you do that, you get noticed regardless of how old you are.
Most importantly, my public service has never been about being the youngest leader of anything; it's about getting things done for Lake County families, period.
Q: What is your top concern as chairman, and how do you plan to accomplish that goal?
A: I'm strongly committed to advancing Route 53. The project speaks to our largest goal, and that is making Lake County an even better place to live and work. Expanding our infrastructure is the No. 1 way we will be able to create an environment that attracts businesses to hire people. By maintaining our AAA bond rating, we are able to advance projects that improve quality of life in the most efficient way possible.
Q: Is there a project or policy you think the board should take up that it hasn't yet?
A: I've spoken with all of our members before I was elected chairman and after. There are a lot of innovative ideas that I would like to implement. You'll see these come forward in the coming months as a part of a new agenda of board-initiated proposals.
At the top of the list is a plan to root out abuse of property tax homestead exemptions. It sounds boring, but if someone is wrongfully claiming exemptions, all of their neighbors pay for it. That's wrong. I think we can fix it by bringing together a task force of elected leaders and staff from county departments.
Q: When the Daily Herald broke the story about your plan to run for chairman, people I know joked that you'd be running for Congress next. Is this job a political steppingstone? How long do you intend to stay on the board or stay chairman? And, what's next?
A: I'll answer your question with a question. Who the heck would want to go to Springfield or Washington? They are a mess. I really give our state and federal legislators a lot of credit, but it's not somewhere I want to be. Being chairman of the county board is the best office to be elected to. We can actually get things done. I hope to be here as long as I have the faith and confidence of the 18th District and the board.