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The Elected Grassroots

Sitting across the table from Ed Kelly is not an intimidating experience. He’s an unimposing figure with a sheepish smile, a receding hairline and a slightly dulled suit.

At first glance, you’d never know that Kelly, 49, could get congressional campaign managers and many elected officials on the phone with a single call.

Libertyville Precinct Committeeman Ed Kelly. (Photo by Michael Coyne)

Kelly’s office of precinct committeeman is small. His constituency numbers about 1,200 potential voters in Libertyville, Ill., which is roughly 40 minutes north of Chicago, and his campaign budget was zilch.

A precinct committeeman is a partisan. That’s it. He or she is an elected, professional, well-informed partisan. Kelly’s job is to be a walking encyclopedia of Republican candidates for office, current officeholders from both parties, and any other miscellaneous government or political information that could be relevant to his constituents. Of course, the resource of a precinct committeeman is only relevant to those constituents who actually know the office exists— and who their committeeman is.

Precinct committeemen are directly elected in every county, save for Cook, in the March primary. In Chicago, officials who appoint precinct captains are elected in each ward.

Unlike most elected Republicans, however, Kelly never has to run against a Democrat. Rather, he has a Democratic counterpart who serves the same area and is responsible for much of the same information. “This is the complete grassroots of politics,” Kelly said. “Republican or Democrat.”

Kelly is married to his work. He’s single, has no kids and has lived in the same neighborhood for most of his life. He has been involved in politics for more than 25 years, including stints working as staff to various elected officials, including two congressmen. In addition to his own unpaid elected office in the suburbs, Kelly maintains a day job as a federal staffer in Chicago.

Kelly chuckled that the Democratic Party’s committeeman for precinct 176, Jennifer Clark, lives a mere three houses away from him.

“I used to get calls from people, ‘She’s having a volunteer push at her house, giving out Dan Seals yard signs,’” Kelly said, referring to the Democratic candidate for Congress who challenged Mark Kirk twice and Bob Dold once. Seals lost all three races. “I used to say, ‘And? What do you want me to do? That’s the job.’”

Both Republican committeemen and Democratic committeemen execute nearly identical functions; the only difference being that the Republican would connect voters with the Bob Dold for Congress campaign, for example, while the Democrat would connect them with newly nominated Brad Schneider’s campaign.

Kelly had no volunteers, no staff, and no real organization during his campaign — a common occurrence for such a small office. “[It was] just me,” Kelly said.

“I had 500 brochure copies printed up at Kinko’s, and distributed them, along with some letters, to about 250 people in about 180 households,” Kelly said enthusiastically, if not somewhat sardonically. He won re-election by a 96-to-84 vote.

“I even had to really drag my mother out to vote,” Kelly said. “She asked, ‘Why should I vote?’ I said… ‘Well, you can vote for me.’”

She had forgotten her son was up for re-election.

“Ed’s job is basically to be a liaison between the county party, state party and the voters of his district,” said Carl Abbott, a Libertyville voter who lives in Kelly’s district. “He also needs to know who constituents can call if they have a problem with the government. That is, can our state senator help us, or would it be better to call our [U.S.] congressman?”

Kelly was elected to his first full two-year term as committeeman in 2002, but was initially appointed to a vacancy brought about by that year’s redistricting process.

“If you’re elected on your own, you get to be your own voice,” Kelly said, “Whereas, if you’re appointed to a position, you serve at someone else’s discretion.”

In 2010, Kelly was elected to the position of township chairman, which means he coordinates meetings of Libertyville’s other 28 Republican precinct committeemen and is essentially the public face of the Libertyville Township Republican Committee.

Kelly’s opponent in the March 20 primary was a man named Walter Oakley. Oakley’s platform was largely based on the notion that Kelly was too close to the offices of elected Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and U.S. Rep. Bob Dold.

That perception is understandable, as Kelly can rattle off the names of Republican staffers, elected officials from Chicago’s suburbs and names of fundraisers and activists with little to no effort. “I have to know everybody,” Kelly joked.

“[Oakley had] a weird platform to run on,” Abbott said. “The purpose of having committeemen, or precinct captains or whatever it is in your area, is to have someone who can effectively communicate with the party and with electeds.”

Kelly says it’s somewhat disheartening to look at the enthusiasm gap in modern politics.

“It’s challenging to see low voter turnout, but I think people are just turned off by politics right now,” Kelly said of the fewer than 200 votes cast in his election. “I understand it, though; people only hear about politicians when they’re fighting or in trouble for something.”

Committee members voted on April 10 to keep Kelly as chairman. He had no opposition this time.

Kelly emphasized several times that he takes it as a strong compliment that his constituents put their faith in him to represent them, and all elected officials should consider their service a privilege and take their duties seriously, regardless of the size of the constituency.

Nevertheless, he said, “it certainly felt good to win.”

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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.