After Elk Grove robocalls, pro-Johnson group plans 'old school' response

After months of robocalls, mailings and even a digital billboard truck urging Elk Grove Village voters to back municipal term limits in an upcoming referendum, allies of Mayor Craig Johnson are starting to mount their campaign in response.

But they're going down a much more traditional route.

"We're going old school," said Kitty Vanderweel Weiner, chairwoman of the Committee to Oppose the Retroactive Term Limits Referendum that's being bankrolled by Johnson.

Their strategy includes a mix of yard signs, knocking on doors and sending mailers - not unlike some of the campaigns Weiner has helped run during her career as a political consultant.

Using Johnson's letterhead, Weiner's committee sent a letter to Elk Grove residents and businesses late last week that touts the record of the 22-year mayor and his long-tenured board. The mailing also includes a slip people can send back if they want a yard sign, would be willing to host a coffee or wish to make a financial contribution.

The committee is planning its first event for Saturday, Feb. 1, at Real Time Sports Bar and Grill to organize supporters.

The Johnson letter arrived in mailboxes just days after he ramped up the rhetoric against the term limits organizers - specifically, Concerned Citizens of Elk Grove Village chairman Tim Burns - during a village board meeting Tuesday.

The morning after, Burns attorney Ross Secler labeled the mayor's comments as "electioneering" meant to suppress and intimidate voters.

The same day, a Cook County judge found a new state law barring retroactive municipal term limits unconstitutional, putting the binding question back on the March 17 Elk Grove ballot. It would ask voters whether the mayor and village trustees should be able to serve no more than two consecutive 4-year terms. If approved, it would prevent Johnson and three other board members from running for reelection in April 2021.

A separate objection to the referendum brought by Weiner's committee will get its first hearing before a judge Wednesday. But she said committee members are still approaching their campaign strategy as if the question will be on the ballot.

"We always had our eye on 7 p.m. March 17," Weiner said. "It was just never the end all, be all of whatever happened in the (electoral board) hearing or court. Our eye has always been on the finish line."

Weiner doesn't believe the anti-term limits campaign is starting too late, but that voters may start paying attention now with less than two months to go before Election Day.

After Burns' group collected signatures over July 4 weekend and submitted them to the village clerk's office the following Monday, a series of anti-incumbent campaign flyers and robocalls began to pop up in mailboxes and on phone lines almost immediately.

Burns' committee has claimed responsibility for some of the dozen or so phone calls and other materials, while Johnson and his allies have tried to tie other opponents to the rest, including local developer Mario Gullo.

Perhaps the most unconventional set of campaign messaging from Burns' committee has been a traveling electronic billboard truck that's popped up around town. The pro-term limits committee has spent close to $6,000 on it, according to a recent campaign disclosure filing. The committee also had a holiday party for its supporters last month.

Weiner said her committee wouldn't do any robocalls, and the plan is not to go negative in campaign flyers.

"It's going to be our job to get to as many people and say, 'This is what's going on, this is what (the referendum) says and here's what we believe," she said.

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Kitty Vanderweel Weiner
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