I made the trip down to Springfield last Thursday for Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair. Hadn't been in years, but little has changed. Mostly the same old faces have just gotten older -- my own, of course, being no exception.
Some of the media reports I've seen on the event could have been phoned-in from a previous year's Republican Day. The serious news that everyone else seems to have ignored is the fact that congressional candidate Erika Harold was denied the opportunity to speak from the podium.
Harold was not allowed to address the joint breakfast meeting of the Republican County Chairmen and State Central Committee in the morning, and she was not allowed to speak from the stage during the lunchtime rally on the fairgrounds. Not only was Harold denied an official speaking slot -- no one even acknowledged her presence from the stage.
One lame excuse I heard was that only incumbent congressmen were being allowed to speak -- and that this rule was not directed at Erika Harold specifically. Absolute nonsense. First of all, it's called "Republican Day," not "Incumbent Day." Second, I can't think of another Republican congressional challenger who was even present. And third, a reasonable person would assume Harold might deserve some stage time to help make amends for the racist/sexist rant a party official penned about Harold back in June.
And keep in mind: This is the same Erika Harold who had a speaking slot at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. But she isn't allowed to speak at what is basically a picnic gathering of several hundred Republicans in Illinois? It's ridiculous.
This was no innocent oversight. This was a deliberate snub by mostly old white men who are bitter over the fact this highly accomplished woman of mixed race won't listen to them. Harold won't run for an unwinnable race like "good" minority candidates are "supposed" to do in the Illinois GOP, and the old men resent it. It's as simple as that.
I talked to several of those bitter old white men at the lunchtime rally. All had the same talking points about how it's somehow bad for a Republican to challenge another Republican -- even one like Rodney Davis who has never won a primary. (Davis was handed the GOP nomination last year in a secret closed door meeting of 14 county chairmen -- nearly all of whom were male of course -- after Congressman Tim Johnson announced his retirement post-primary.) All of the old men I talked to on Thursday had no rebuttal when I reminded them that our party's hero Ronald Reagan had once challenged an incumbent Republican president in a primary (Gerald Ford in 1976). Reagan is far from the only example.
So while speaker after speaker droned on with the same old speeches about how our party needs to be more inclusive and do a better job of reaching out to minority communities which have traditionally voted Democratic, all ignored the one true rock star candidate standing nearly right in front of them in the audience. Erika Harold is the one candidate we have right now who can actually grow our party. Voters, especially young voters, are drawn to this Harvard-educated lawyer in a way you very rarely see.
Much blame for Thursday's embarrassing performance has to fall on Randy Pollard, the Chairman of the Republican County Chairman's Association, and Jack Dorgan, the new Chairman of the Illinois Republican Party who reportedly leads the Illinois GOP when he's not helping his Democrat friends. But also complicit are all of the county chairmen, state central committeemen, and rank-and-file, who are too afraid of their own shadows to go against hacks like Pollard and Dorgan on behalf of a fresh face.
Other profiles in cowardice were the four gubernatorial candidates. This is especially shameful given that some -- if not all of them -- have attempted to recruit Harold as their lieutenant governor running mate. Reports are that most of the governor wannabes are right now still desperately searching for a woman to run with. But so poor has been their past party building work, the GOP pool of prospective candidates is shallow to say the least.
So Harold is good enough to be window-dressing for a statewide ticket, but she's not good enough to even acknowledge from the stage. What an incredible missed opportunity. If just one of the speakers had simply said something like "You know this party needs to do more than just talk about minority outreach. We've got a great woman here who I understand has not been invited to speak. We'll I'm going to yield the rest of my time so you can meet Erika Harold," that would have been the news story of the day. And maybe at least one person would have come across as a Republican leader at Republican Day.
Doug Ibendahl is a Chicago Attorney and a former General Counsel of the Illinois Republican Party.