Many local races have few candidates, but these buck the trend

In 1990, holding elected office wasn't yet a gleam in Ruth Munson's eye.

She had just moved to Elgin with her husband and children and had started a software development business in town.

"I was trying to learn about the community," she said.

Munson signed up for the Elgin Area Leadership Academy's inaugural class, which taught her about participating in government. She successfully ran for city council in 1999, then for Republican state representative in 2002, an office she held until 2009. Today, she's one of the academy's instructors.

The leadership academy, in its 27th year, is one reason races for Elgin City Council, the city's Gail Borden Public Library and Elgin Area School District U-46 are flush with candidates year after year, a contrast to many local governments.

Only about one-third of the hundreds of suburban races on the ballot in today's election are contested, according to a Daily Herald analysis. That's down from about 45 percent of races that were contested in local elections in 2009.

Like Elgin, some suburbs buck that trend. Some, like the village of Bensenville, face controversies that brought more candidates to the front. Others, like Palatine Elementary District 15, are full of candidates after political parties got involved in ostensibly nonpartisan races. That raises concern from some quarters.

In the long run, a full ballot helps the community by offering more voices and choices, said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.

"If you want to have a vibrant political system, then you want to have people engaged in local politics," Redfield said.

Turmoil often draws candidates into the fray. Bensenville in recent years has had controversy about O'Hare International Airport's expansion, a project that brought concern about jet noise and pollution and an exodus of local businesses and residents. In 2008, it was named by Forbes Magazine as one of America's "fastest-dying towns."

Yet, since 2009, every village board seat, as well as the mayor's race, has been contested with candidates from the village's two warring local parties, "Working 4 Bensenville" and "Bensenville United," coming head to head in every race, with the village's economic vitality often the focus of campaigns.

In the suburbs, political parties are drafting and endorsing candidates in some local elections, though in most cases candidates' party affiliations are not listed on ballots. Local races are designed to be nonpartisan to increase cooperation on boards and because party politics aren't relevant in providing services, the National League of Cities says.

"At the local level, board cohesion is better if you don't wear your party politics on your sleeve," said Glen Ellyn resident John Snyder, an appointee to a Glenbard High School District 87 committee who said he was disappointed to see a candidate in that race touting party affiliation and endorsement.

But Palatine Township Republican committeeman Aaron Del Mar said the party is backing five candidates in District 15 because they hold Republican views on small government and want to head off a repeat of a $130 million proposal to build two new schools and redraw school boundary lines. The plan failed in a November referendum.

The candidates - Mike Smolka, Anthony Wang, Lisa Szczupaj, Barb Kain and Frank Annerino - are endorsed and their fundraisers listed on the Palatine Township Republican group's website, though the candidates' committee listed with the Illinois State Board of Elections is independent.

They are among 11 candidates for five seats in District 15. That's at a time when at least 150 races on suburban ballots don't have enough candidates to fill all vacant seats.

Whatever the role of party politics, the pipeline from local office to the Illinois General Assembly is growing. Forty-five percent of Republicans in the Illinois House have held municipal or school district elected positions, up from 40 percent in 2007. Half the Republicans in the state Senate have done so, up from 43 percent in 2007.

Among Democrats, 25 percent of House members have held local office, up from 22 percent a decade ago, and 43 percent of senators have done so, up from 34 percent in 2007.

In its 27th year, the Elgin Area Leadership Academy turns out local civic leaders. Members who've been meeting for 10 months will graduate from the program April 29. Courtesy OF Elgin Area Leadership Academy

Less controversial in recruiting candidates for local office are programs like the Elgin Area Leadership Academy, which recruits participants by scouring area churches and community groups and enrolling them in a 10-month program conducted through the Elgin Area chamber of Commerce.

This year's 22-member class has spent weeks reviewing leadership styles and civic issues in Elgin. Before graduation on April 29, participants must produce a group project addressing a local problem and presenting a way to handle it.

In Munson's Leadership Academy class were longtime U-46 school board member Joyce Fountain, Kane County Board member Cathy Hurlbut and former Elgin City Council member Stu Wasilowski.

"The people I met in that first class, the good majority of them I continue to count on and rely on," Munson said.

State Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin took part in a similar program, the Edgar Fellows Program, an annual summer program at the University of Illinois that brings young leaders together to teach them to collaborate on policy in a bipartisan way.

The former Kane County Board member says the experience got the ball rolling toward pursuing election to the General Assembly.

"People would joke with me, when I announced I was running for Senate, and say, 'Why do you want to be part of something that's dysfunctional?' But I found that on the county board ... we always looked at it as issues-based versus party-based," Castro said. "It was having that local government experience and maneuvering through the budget that I felt like I could bring things to the table."

• Daily Herald Staff Writer Jake Griffin contributed to this report.

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