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updated: 3/14/2014 1:04 PM

Some seats contested, others vacant as committeeman role evolves

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  • GOP precinct committeeman Larry Moretti knocks on doors in Addison, talking about Tuesday's primary election.

       GOP precinct committeeman Larry Moretti knocks on doors in Addison, talking about Tuesday's primary election.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • GOP committeeman Larry Moretti, left, talks to neighbor Phil Casto about the upcoming primary election.

       GOP committeeman Larry Moretti, left, talks to neighbor Phil Casto about the upcoming primary election.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

As robocalls drone into voice mail and professionally produced attack fliers clog mailboxes, Larry Moretti is out campaigning the old-fashioned way for Tuesday's primary.

The Addison Township Republican precinct committeeman is spending at least an hour daily knocking on doors, connecting personally with voters, this election season.

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He's the last of an era, Moretti thinks. "It's a new age," Moretti said. "It's all computerized electronic mailing ... the committeeman of yesterday is gone."

As politics evolves in an age of millennials and social media, Democrat and GOP organizers across the suburbs acknowledge challenges recruiting that old-school army of unpaid foot soldiers.

But precinct committeemen are far from extinct, they say. And, in some cases, turf wars springing up over a traditionally uncontested position are a reflection of national soul-searching over what their party stands for.

"In Lake County, we have a long tradition of precinct committeemen. It really means something," Lake County Republican Party Chairman Bob Cook said.

In fact, some voters consider Cook's lawn signs the equivalent of a sample ballot.

"If I'm a little late, they knock on my door and say, 'I don't see the signs,'" Cook explained.

This primary there are 10 Republican committeeman races out of 415 Lake precincts, which is "unusual," Cook said, adding that one reason is single-issue groups sponsoring candidates.

"Some are religious, some are just interested in fiscal policy," he said. "Every group has got their idea of how to win. My opinion is, 'you can only win by adding. You can't win by subtracting voters.' The right-to-lifers and the hard-core conservatives have to get along with the moderates."

In McHenry County, it's a tossup between disinterest and pitched battles, longtime Republican campaigner Jack Schaffer said.

For example, there are more than 80 GOP committeeman spots out of 212 precincts where no one has filed to run, according to the county website. Yet, there are 12 contested primaries.

"There has been a group for many years that wanted to take over and throw the 'good-old boys' out," Schaffer said, characterizing the struggle as between establishment and Tea Party Republicans.

But overall, "it's a mere shadow of what it once was," said Schaffer, a former state senator and McHenry County Republican chairman. The younger generation of suburban Republicans are "not as interested in local government ... they've got kids in soccer."

When he first ran for committeeman in the 1960s, it was "a big deal," Schaffer said. "People in precincts could help a kid get a summer job. All that stuff is gone and most of the people who are committeemen are ideologically motivated, which I prefer over patronage."

Out of 228 precincts in Kane County, excluding the city of Aurora, more than half are missing Republican committeemen candidates.

The decline dates back to the 2012 presidential election, said Barbara Wojnicki, Kane County Republican Organization chairman. "A lot of them worked so hard when (Mitt) Romney was running for president. When Romney lost ... a lot of them lost interest," she said.

Wojnicki acknowledged the malaise may "be a generational thing. But, we are trying to pull in younger people, recognizing that they need to get involved now for when we step aside," she said.

Meanwhile, a bitter primary in Elk Grove Township pits twenty-something Scott Lietzow against deputy committeeman Art Niewiardowski for the open township Republican committeeman job.

Both candidates agree that the committeeman's role is still relevant in 2014.

"If you have local people working for candidates, it carries more weight than shipping people from out of town," Lietzow said.

Niewiardowski is accustomed to getting calls and emails from inquisitive voters. "They'll say who are you backing for library board? And, why?" he recounted.

If political enthusiasm is lackluster in some suburbs, the love of the game is strong in DuPage County, where Republicans are bent on holding their traditional stronghold while Democrats are just as hungry to gain ground.

Democratic Party of DuPage Chairman Robert Peickert said committeemen can make a difference because "people appreciate someone knocking on their doors and handing them literature instead of getting it in the mail. They pay attention to it more -- it's that personal touch."

Meanwhile, Addison Township GOP Chairman Pat Durante talks in military terms about deploying his "troops" of committeemen.

Addison Township Republicans are known to show up at the polls with "our sample ballot sticking out of purses and pockets," Durante said.

"When someone knocks on your door, especially if it's a neighbor, and says, 'I'm asking you to vote for this person' ... you take it more seriously than a 30-second TV spot."

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