Big-money race for DuPage County Board chair kicks into high gear
The race to succeed DuPage County Board Chair Dan Cronin is one of the most closely watched in Illinois, with both candidates raking in large donations for the final leg of the campaign.
State Rep. Deb Conroy is trying to become the first Democrat and the first woman to take the county board gavel. Her opponent, Greg Hart, has positioned himself as a rising star in county Republican politics.
The pricey contest will be key to determining whether Democrats can expand their influence in a county that was considered reliably Republican even a decade ago.
"DuPage County has been shifting Democrat for a long time, but it's still pretty purple," said Melissa Mouritsen, a political science professor at the College of DuPage.
Hart and Conroy have sparred over who has the requisite qualifications for a job that pays $136,959 a year.
Hart, a management consultant from Hinsdale, has climbed the political ladder quickly. He was first appointed to the county board in 2017 and went on to win his first full term.
Hart said he "could hit the ground running on day one" and would draw on his private-sector experience.
"We're going to need the right leadership, and I think for this position, considering the size and scope of the county government, the fact that we have 2,000 employees, have a very large budget, we need someone that is skilled in, frankly, being an executive and managing large organizations," Hart said. "I have that expertise. We need someone that's shown a demonstrated record at the county level of having success and an understanding and knowledge of county issues."
Conroy has emphasized her legislative track record and work to expand access to mental health care. She was an artist by trade and former Elmhurst Unit District 205 school board member before her election to the state House in 2012.
"I believe that my experience having the connections, the relationships I've built - just like Chairman Cronin did while he was in the Senate for 16 years and has publicly stated that his experience in the Senate gave him the ability to lead the county board - I believe that is an incredibly valuable piece to bring to the board," Conroy said.
Cronin, who is stepping down after 12 years at the helm of the board, has backed Hart as his successor.
"DuPage County has always been a government that has maintained a balanced budget, prioritized our investment in public safety and tries to do all we can to limit our tax burden on our citizens, and unless we get the right chairman in that position, that might change," Hart said.
Conroy said she intends to be a "full-time county board chair."
"There is so much work to be done. I don't understand how anybody could have another full-time job and do this," Conroy said.
Hart has sought to make crime a central theme in the race, taking a page from the GOP playbook.
"I will continue doing all we can to give our state's attorney and our sheriff the head count that they need to do their jobs," he said when asked about his top issue.
Conroy said she wants to open a county intake facility that would "allow anyone arrested with mental health or addiction issues to go there and get the treatment that they need and not be incarcerated."
In the fundraising race, Hart's campaign account had nearly $1.15 million on hand, the most recent finance reports show, with the Illinois Republican Party, Inland Real Estate and conservative benefactor Craig Duchossois among his top donors, according to Reform for Illinois' Sunshine Database.
"He's got a ground game, a really good ground game," said Mouritsen, the COD professor. "And I think that's what it's going to boil down to ... who has the stronger ground game? Because Hart has recognition, I think name recognition as well, and he's almost running on Dan Cronin's fourth term."
Conroy had more than $690,000 in cash on hand for the campaign's last weeks, records show. She's received support from labor groups.
"This idea of a pink wave almost in addition to the blue wave, I think, is something that she's been really working hard on," Mouritsen said. "But she also has been reaching out to her traditional bases of support, especially unions, for instance."
The flood of money "makes sense" because of the shifting political landscape in DuPage, Mouritsen said.
"Dan Cronin didn't raise anywhere near these figures, nor did he have to," she said. "He was somebody who until 2018 had appeal to both parties."
When Hart was appointed to the county board in 2017, Democrats held just one seat on the 18-member panel and no countywide posts. Now, there are 11 Democratic board members.
"They've been subjected to a lot of infighting," Mouritsen said. "I think that the Democratic majority might be at risk because they haven't been able to do sort of the things that they had set out to do."
All 18 board seats will be up for election in November because of redistricting.